One goal or moment in a soccer game can make all the difference. The Cyclone women’s soccer team talked all season about maximizing those golden moments, which they did through another historic run.
The 2016 season reads a lot like 2015: Undefeated in the Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference (6-0), NJCAA Region IV champions after defeating Waubonsee Community College in a nail-biting matchup, ranked nationally (No. 15 at the end of the season), competed at the national tournament, and a laundry list of individual awards. But this year brought a different mindset.
“This year was a totally different vibe, but last year’s successes helped big time. We had a huge freshmen class last year going through their first college season. We just wanted to get to nationals. This year, everything we did led up to the region final with Waubonsee, and we took care of business,” said head Coach Al Palar, finishing his second successful season at the helm. “We played great soccer and took it to another level.”
A largely sophomore squad with experience at nationals made it that much easier to feel confident about another good run. In only the program’s second time on the big stage, the Cyclones met their expectation to play well at the NJCAA Division I championship. Although Moraine Valley lost both games in Pool A play to end their season, they did so with proficiency and poise. They held the No. 1 team in the nation—Paradise Valley Community College (Phoenix, AZ)—to a scoreless second half and were only two shot attempts behind No. 8-ranked Parkland College (Champaign, IL) in the second game.
“They were stronger and faster than us, but we competed and played well. I’m extremely proud of this group. This trip to nationals was a success,” Palar said. “There were a ton of tears after the final game. It was very emotional, especially for the sophomores. What they’ve done for the program in two years is beyond incredible.”
Every game and practice, the coaches talked about both the good and bad moments. In his two years at Moraine Valley, Palar noted the best moment came in the region final game to advance to nationals. With the score tied at 0 and the game pushed into overtime, sophomore Dalila Alcala (Eisenhower) scored the winning goal.
“It was happiness and relief. We dominated that game, and we were the better team. You’d hate to lose on a fluke goal. We talked about that moment all year, and we took it. That was the best moment, and we’ll never forget that,” he said.
Following that game, Alcala was named region tournament MVP and Palar earned Region Coach of the Year. As captain, Alcala earned All-Region and All-Conference first team honors for her efforts in center back, which included playing every minute of every game this season. Several teammates garnered awards as well.
For her second year in a row, leading scorer Marbella Rodriguez (Kelly) was named Skyway Player of the Year and received nods to the All-Region and All-Conference first teams. She scored 25 goals, ranking her No. 15 in the nation, which was higher than last year (23). She also was the lead in assists (12). Also receiving All-Conference honors were Karina Lopez (Reavis), Diana Lang (Marist), Alex Abed (Stagg), Sandy Ortiz (Richards Career Academy), Sintia Salas (Curie), Ewelina Kmin (Reavis), Edith Benitez (Reavis), Milena Singletary (Joliet Central), Jillian Steinke (Andrew), and Kaylyn Egyarto (Sandburg). Abed, Lopez, Lang, and Ortiz were named to the All-Region teams as well.
It wasn’t just a talented team cobbled together, but a genuine group that worked hard for each other to reach such feats. “They had the heart, personality and friendship. We didn’t just throw 16 athletes together to play soccer. They’re a special breed. That makes the difference,” Palar said. “Alcala was a solid player in back. Lopez is a gifted player and we knew no one could get past her. Lang hustled and did the little things that make a difference. Abed stepped up when needed and could’ve played anywhere. Rodriguez is a special player, and she’d find a way to get through opponents.”
Not only did they have success on the field, finishing with a 14-4 overall record, but also shared that love of soccer with others. In October, the team played some scrimmage games with visiting Special Olympics athletes on campus. They additionally volunteered at Feed My Starving Children with fellow Cyclone athletes at the start of the semester.
As a chunk of the team looks to transfer to four-year colleges and universities, the coaches have a new challenge to find recruits to fill the significant holes on the field. They will, however, have five to six returning freshmen who know how to capitalize on golden moments.