Winning has become commonplace for the Western Washington University Vikings women’s soccer team over the past several years. They have been one of the four teams left standing in the DII soccer championships twice in the past three seasons, going 51-5-6 over that span. Only to seemingly outdo themselves, this season has been one of historic proportions.
They reeled off 17 straight victories after an opening match tie, finishing 17-0-1, en route to their fifth consecutive GNAC regular-season title, a conference record. The Vikings became a model of consistency at home, setting the GNAC consecutive wins mark when they won their 23rd in a row in Bellingham. They also became just the second team in conference history to make a perfect run through the GNAC, finishing 12-0-0.
“It’s phenomenal,” said WWU head coach Travis Connell, the 2016 GNAC Coach of the Year. “Both of my assistant coaches played against that Seattle Pacific team that held that record, so we’ve learned a lot from them. The conference has never been as strong as it is right now, so to be able to have the consistency that our players showed this year has been unbelievable.”This senior class, guided by veterans like Elise Aylward and Caitlyn Jobanek, have helped take this program to an elite level from the minute they took the pitch back in 2013. It was the year before, however, that may have changed the destiny of the Vikings program.
“Our 2012 year, we were a low seed in the NCAA tournament. We won two golden-goal games in that tournament on the road and made it to the regional finals for the first time. I really believe that was the year that really changed our program. It helped us really understand what this program could do,” Connell said.
Since then, this team has set the standard for excellence, not only in the GNAC, but as one of the premier programs in the country. As they head to Burnaby, B.C., Canada for the GNAC championships, they look to combine the lessons of the past into one final run and get over that semifinals hump that has plagued them of late.
“Obviously you have to play your best in the biggest games,” Connell said. “You have to relish the opportunity you are given to be on that stage. That is something that I have seen in this year’s team more than I have in the past. They play the best in the big games. We’re hoping that translates during November.”
“Our team has gained a lot of experience over the past three years,” senior forward and midfielder Caitlyn Jobanek added. “Having the opportunity to play against some of the best teams in the country has shown us what it takes to be the best. My confidence has grown immensely since my freshman year, and a lot of this has come from competing at such a high level. Travis [Connell] and our coaching staff have prepared us well for the start of the postseason, and we are confident in our game plan. I do think there is always a bit of pressure on the senior class for any team, but this season has been one to remember. And, I can assure you we are nowhere near being done.”
Normally a defense-first team, this 2016 rendition of the Vikings are a well-balanced attack. Their defense hasn’t slipped at all — they are third best in the nation in goals against average (.274) and are tied for second in shutout percentage (.778) — but now, they add an equally potent offense, ranking 20th in the nation in scoring, averaging 2.5 goals a game. Eighteen different Vikings have scored a goal this season.“Out of my four years competing for Western, we have never had this many different people score in a season, so it is very exciting,” Jobanek said. “I think this is one of the key reasons we have been so successful thus far, we have so many players who can create or be a threat. We also have a lot of depth on our roster, our players coming off the bench are making a huge difference and scoring goals and making plays as well. We are very excited to show the rest of the country who we are.”
“There are players on this team that are special,” Connell said of his ever-improving offense. “They can do stuff when you don’t think stuff can't be done. That’s created goals for us.”
Jobanek has long been a strong force on this team. She took home all-tournament honors as a freshman, while earning the GNAC tournament MVP last year after her game winner against SPU. This season, she and Aylward lead the team in points with 18, pacing the offensive attack with seven goals a piece. While a bevy of youthful players — like freshmen Liv Larson and Peyton Chick — are ready to take over next season, Jobanek is happy with the legacy her class has established at Western.
“I want to be remembered as a hard-working group of seniors who put the team first and helped create an environment where everyone feels like they play an important role,” Jobanek said. “Everyone on our team, from the starters to the redshirts, contribute to our overall success. Most importantly, I want people to remember why Western soccer was so successful. We enjoyed our time here and created a wonderful soccer family, which helped us compete at the highest level.”
This team is loaded with talent. Junior defender Sierra Shugarts was the GNAC Player of the Year, while junior midfielder Emily Webster took home GNAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Transfer keeper Ashley Homer was named the Newcomer of the Year after posting a 16-0-1 record. Sophomore forward Gabriela Pelogi joins Webster, Shugarts and Jobanek as First-Team All-GNAC selections.To finally get past the semifinals with this team would make this record-setting season all the more special for Connell.
“It would be incredible,” Connell said. “Obviously, that’s one of our goals and that would be a sweet way for these seniors to graduate. I wish more kids in the NCAA could experience championships. They are really special. We will try hard and play hard, and if it results in a championship, then we will celebrate it. But if it doesn’t, it won’t take away what they have accomplished. They are so mature that they get that. We’re just going to enjoy the ride.”