GV soccer advances to the national title game

GVL / Robert Mathews
Jenny Shaba weaving past an AIC defender.

GVL / Robert Mathews Jenny Shaba weaving past an AIC defender.

Pete Barrows

Pull off interstate 20 at Evans, GA., make a left on Belair, the street with a Cracker Barrel on the corner, and take it all the way down past traffic to Blanchard Dr. Turn in.

A few freshly planted ‘NCAA Division II by choice’ flags line a twisted gravel road that leads into a cul de sac. All the way back in the bottom of a sloping basin sits a field in the woods that could only be found by those who already know that it’s there.

Here, only a few hours from Savannah, GA., where the Grand Valley State University women’s soccer team’s undefeated season began, the Lakers made their triumphant return to the Peach State to extend their 2013 campaign with a 4-1 NCAA tournament semifinal victory over American International College.

“We have a lot of respect for our opponent and I thought AIC was a very dangerous squad – any team that comes out of that conference is usually very athletic – but going in, we were very prepared,” GVSU coach Dave Dilanni said. “We had a chance to see (AIC) play quite a bit and thought we’d given our girls enough information to manage and be ready to go.”

Both GVSU and AIC warmed up in a light drizzle as a recorded rendition of ‘Oh, Canada’ preceded ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ across a drowned PA system. The rain subsided into an umbrella of cloud cover with the opening kickoff.

Junior forward Charlie Socia took the first shot of the game in the fourth minute and inspired a series of deep Laker runs into the heart of the Yellow Jacket defense, although each early fast break was thwarted and cleared by the swarming AIC defense.

GVSU produced an 8-3 shot advantage and a 6-0 corner-kick margin over AIC in the first half, but It wasn’t until minute 31, 64 seconds after the Lakers utilized their first substitution of the game, that GVSU located the back of the net.

Freshman forward Marti Corby, who had scored in five consecutive games entering the match, was held without goal, but assisted Laker and GLIAC leading scorer, junior Jenny Shaba, to put GVSU up 1-0. A flurry of narrow misses – a shot by Yellow Jacket senior back Alie Fitzsimmons that grazed the post and a header by Laker senior Shelby Humphries that redirected off the crossbar – punctuated the final 10 minutes of the half.

Down a goal, AIC retook the swamped field in the second half revitalized. The Yellow Jackets controlled possession, pace and peppered GVSU with several shots early in the second stanza

“We had five really bad minutes, and that was the first five minutes of the second half,” Dilanni said. “As good as we played in the first half, to give up that goal right at the beginning was difficult. Give our kids credit mentally – they dove right back in – and I’m really proud of our girls.”

Senior defender Kayla Kimble and the rest of the seasoned GVSU back line held AIC leading scorer and likely All-American, junior forward Sonia Basma, to two shots, but one that got away ricocheted around in front of the GVSU crease where it was rebounded and punched past GVSU senior keeper Abbey Miller by AIC Ronja Haag in minute 47. It was the third straight game that GVSU had scored first, only to have the score knotted up at 1-1.

“They came out and they scored the goal,” Miller said. “Mentally we made a mistake. You have to just move on, keep the ball on the ground and keep communicating.”

The game notched at one goal apiece, Shaba took it upon herself to once again rattle the Yellow Jacket hive. After Shaba raced past her defender to collect a long, rolling through ball, danced along the goal line and fired just wide of the crease, she returned less than a minute later to finish what she started. Corby once again provided the assist and a missile launched to the left-upper 90 of the AIC crease put GVSU up to stay, 2-1.

“At halftime (Coach Dilanni) put it really well: it’s a 90 minute game,” Shaba said. “It’s not one half – it’s two halves. We really tried to focus on playing the second half as well, if not better, than the first. It was probably one of my better games, but I think the best is yet to come. I’m excited for Saturday.”

With the game still very much in reach, AIC dodged a near own-goal while combating Shaba’s continued attacks to stay alive. In minute 73, Kimble hammered close the AIC coffin. Freshman forward Erika Bradfield held the nail.

Bradfield escaped the AIC defense to make her third deep run in the game and was dragged down in the box – a rare whistle set the stage. Kimble, who had netted her only other goal in a penalty kick opportunity to defeat Michigan Tech earlier in the season, delivered on the set piece to put GVSU up 3-1.

“I was nervous, but it was time to step up for the team,” Kimble said. “We all knew it was time to step up in the second half, and it showed out there.”

Another Shaba shot, one of her six on the afternoon, deflected back to Corby, who launched six shots of her own, and freshman Kendra Stauffer filled out the 4-1 final with a strike in minute 78. Corby was credited with the assist, her third of the game.

Up three with 12 minutes left in the match, GVSU subbed in seniors Sam Decker, Kelsey Fiscus, Taylor Callen and Humphries to join fellow seniors Miller, Kimble, Tayler Ward and Autumn Jacobs and complete the graduating Laker class that had gone 84-4-10 in their four years together on the field.

The Lakers subbed frequently throughout the afternoon and only Miller, Kimble junior defender Juane Odendaal logged a full 90 minutes. Nine Yellow Jackets punched in for 80 minutes or more.

“We wanted to out-posses them,” Dilanni said. “We wanted to milk the game out. We thought we had the players to do that, and we were right. We also thought we had better depth than them and we got some real key contributions from players off of our bench. It was very evident that our kids did a fantastic job today following the game plan.“GVSU (24-01) will kick off their fifth title game in school history Saturday at noon against NSCAA No. 3 ranked West Florida (18-0-2), who beat Western Washington 2-1 in overtime in their semifinal Saturday. Much like a field that can be found only by those who already know where it is, a national title can only be discovered with a map – a map the Lakers have followed to the curve. The season extended to its fullest extent, two teams will enter Blanchard Park Saturday without loss. Only one will find their way home with a championship trophy.