ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – Lynyrd Skynyrd was wailing in the background, apropos of a team that knows where it is headed.
“Where are you going?” shouted Michael Voss. His Grace women’s soccer players in unison answered, “Alabama!”
Indeed, the Lady Lancers had their minds on the beach when it took down host Benedictine, 1-0, after JJ Aalbue scored the latest biggest goal of the season for Grace, an overtime winner that sent the Lady Lancers to the Sweet 16 of the NAIA National Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Aalbue’s goal, which came in the seventh minute of overtime, took a fortuitous route off the Benedictine keepers hands, sending the Lancers to its second-ever trip to the NAIA round of 16. To earn the win, which was preceded by a 5-3 win over Friends in the opening round, showed Voss his club is on a mission.
“The thinking going in was realizing that Benedictine had an extra day of rest and we had no rest after going against Friends,” Voss said. “We had to modify what we did Friday and had a couple not play Saturday like we wanted because of health. Benedictine has one of the top offenses in the NAIA. We were prepared for them to press us. We took the fight out of them and took control in the second half.”
Combined with the play of Grace’s defense, anchored by keeper Bethany Blackwood and rocks like Hannah Tkacz and Anna Kuhl, the No. 19 Lancers (16-4-2) posted its 10th shutout of the season en route to a date with the No. 3-ranked University of Northwestern Ohio (20-1) on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Voss feels his defense has been tested, but has withstood the challenges in what has been a very tough schedule that will only get tougher.
“She’s ready, and is playing at a really high level right now,” Voss said of Blackwood, who has allowed just 17 goals this season in 17 caps. “This is what you wait for as a goalkeeper, to know that when you’re called upon, you are ready to step up. She’s right there for us.”
Blackwood will be tested from a potent UNO offense that features a trio of gunners for a team that hasn’t lost since Sept. 19, its only hiccup, 1-0, against No. 2 Keiser. UNO, which beat Cumberland 2-0 to reach the Sweet 16, features 17 internationals of its 20-woman side. Among them, Kate Agyemang is the team’s leading scorer with 18 goals and 11 assists, with Julie Cazanave (15/7) and Jeweleen Reuille (14/6) right behind. UNO has potted 74 goals this season as a team and keeper Lisa Vernath has allowed just eight goals in 19 caps this season, going 18-1 in those matches.
Life will not be a beach in Grace’s trip to Alabama.
“Everyone north of the Mason-Dixon line likes going south this time of year,” quipped Voss. “It won’t be hot, maybe 60s, good soccer weather. This team likes the national tourney environment. We’ve been to national tourneys before and we’ve played across the US.
“UNO has a big record and they play well. It should be a good challenge, What teams get their stride will be playing into the Final Four.”
Voss admitted him and his coaching staff haven’t seen much tape of UNO, but would be using Thanksgiving week to catch up on scouting. While the players had some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday, Voss noted several UNO results against Crossroads League teams in UNOs favor, including a 6-0 aggregate against St. Francis, Taylor and Spring Arbor to open their year, is impressive.
Grace’s pod with UNO also includes No. 6 Southeastern and No. 11 Vanguard, the pod championship set for Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 6:30 p.m. On the other half of the bracket include Crossroads League members No. 12 Marian and No. 9 Indiana Wesleyan. The tournament semi-finals are Friday at 6 p.m. and finals set for Saturday, Dec. 7, at 6 p.m.