Iowa soccer went 2-8-1 during the regular season and finished 12th in the Big Ten. In any other year that wouldn't have even qualified for the conference tournament, which traditionally has included only the top-eight league finishers. Luckily, this past year hasn't been like any other year, and Iowa not only qualified for the conference tournament but messed around and won the whole freakin' thing.
Iowa completed a Cinderella run for the ages on Sunday, beating Wisconsin 1-0 to win the Big Ten Conference Tournament. The win completed a four-game run through the best the Big Ten had to offer and secured Iowa's first-ever conference title.
Sunday's lone goal came midway through the 2nd half when Jenny Cape sent an absolute screamer into the top of the net from outside of the box. It was an ambitious attempt, but Cape hit it squarely and Wisconsin (and Big Ten Goalie of the Year) Jordyn Bloomer was unable to react in time.
Not a bad time for your first goal of the season.
The biggest story of the day though, and the season, was the team's defense, led by Freshman goalie Macy Enneking. Wisconsin notched 20 shots in the game, but Enneking and the Hawkeyes were more than up to the task. Particularly in the first half, Wisconsin put a ton of pressure on the Hawkeyes. Iowa held strong, earning the shutout and the championship. But Enneking was exceptional and Iowa's defensive discipline was excellent, as it had been throughout this stunning NCAA Tournament run.
It was Iowa's second straight shutout and sixth of the season. Enneking's performance in the conference tournament (23 saves, 1 goal allowed, 3 shutouts) deservedly earned her Most Outstanding Defensive Player of the Tournament.
The story of this tournament run can't be told in just one game though. To understand the monumental achievement that was this win, you have to look at the season-long effort by this team to put together a complete performance. Iowa didn't score their first goal until their SEVENTH game of the season. At the start of the season, Iowa gave up six goals in three games, an effort head coach Dave Dianni called "embarrassing" during the post-match interview Sunday.
Fixing the defense came first. A renewed commitment to defense, plus handing the goalkeeping duties to a freshman in Macy Enneking, got the job done. Iowa gave up only 7 goals in their final 8 games and notched three shutouts. That's a defensive effort that even Phil Parker would be impressed by.
But defense was only half the problem. The bigger issue for the Hawkeyes was that they couldn't score. Like, at all. Iowa was racking up the shots in their first six games but couldn't find the back of the net. The defense kept them in games, but they couldn't get over the hump. Iowa scored once against Rutgers, but still lost 2-1. The next game, however, Iowa finally got into the win column when Gianna Gourley put home an overtime winner against Maryland. Iowa was only able to score once more on the season (in a 1-0 win against Purdue on Senior Day), but played then #9 Penn State to a tough 1-0 loss and nearly found an equalizer in the season finale, a 1-0 loss to Nebraska.
The team looked better but was still inconsistent, not a surprise for a team that lost 14 players from the prior season. Thanks to the COVID-shortened season, the Big Ten changed the format for the conference tournament, allowing every team to make the postseason, starting with the regional weekend tournament.
Iowa's first postseason match was against Illinois, who smoked the Hawkeyes 3-0 early in the year. Iowa had something different in mind this time around, beating the Illini 2-1 in OT on the back of a golden goal by freshman Meike Ingles (you'll want to remember that name).
Iowa followed that win up with a commanding 2-0 win over Minnesota three days later. Ingles put another one in the back of the net, Samantha Tawharu sent home the second, and the Cinderella run was on.
Iowa's third match would prove to be its toughest as they took on Penn State, ranked #4 nationally, in Happy Valley. Penn State's starting XI included the Big Ten's Forward and Midfielder of the Year, led by the Big Ten Coach of the Year. Iowa survived an offensive blitz in the first half (have we mentioned that Macy Enneking is good?) and took advantage of a great tackle early in the second half to score a goal and take the lead. The goal-scorer was, yet again, Meike Ingles.
Soon after, Iowa defender Samantha Cary was shown her second yellow card of the game (on a questionable call), leaving Iowa to defend against the best the Big Ten had to offer with only 10 players. The final 30 minutes were spent almost exclusively in the Iowa box, but the defense held tough, with multiple amazing saves from Enneking and a match-saving goal-line block by Olivia Hellweg to earn the win and a trip to the conference championship game.
A lot of Sunday's match against Wisconsin felt like a repeat of the match against Penn State with Iowa accepting loads of pressure before looking for an opportunity to strike. After Jenny Cape's goal, though (assisted by tournament superstar Meike Ingles and fellow Minnesota game scorer Samantha Tawharu), Iowa started to assert itself. They held possession as Wisconsin did all they could to break through and they were calm and confident while the clock wound down. When the buzzer finally sounded, there was no doubt who the better team (and best team in the conference) was.
Ingles was the obvious choice for Most Outstanding Offensive Player after her spectacular four-game run and received the award just after the final gun.
She's just a freshman, too! @meikeCingles picked a good time for her first three collegiate goals... three game-winners en route to being named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Offensive Player! #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/kU12KTcj8j— Hawkeye Soccer (@HawkeyeSoccer) April 18, 2021
Cliches are cliches for a reason and sometimes they're exactly what is needed. Taking advantage of every opportunity, peaking at the right time, Cinderella story, hard work finally paying off -- every single one fits. This team easily could've given up, shown up in name only against Illinois, and called it a season. Instead, they came together, bested the tournament's top three seeds, earned three shutouts, and came home with a CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP. Congrats to Coach Dave Dilanni and the entire Iowa soccer team. You've earned this and we can't wait to see you in the NCAA Tournament.
GO IOWA SOCCER AWESOME
If you could choose the way to spend your first second as a conference champ, odds are you would have picked just about anything other than what happened to poor Diane Senkowski. Senkowski took an absolute rocket to the face right as the buzzer sounded on Sunday's game. Senkowski took it like the champ she had quite literally had just become and her coach confirmed that she's doing OK, so luckily it will become nothing more than a funny story at the end of an amazing run.
Imagine this: At the exact moment you and your team win the first Big Ten tournament championship in program history, your opponent smokes a ball right into your face. There's a lot happening in that one second.@dianesenkowski lived it. But hey, she's a Big Ten champ. #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/ZAeAjlg55w— Grant Becker (@GBeckTV) April 18, 2021