The 14th-ranked ONU women’s soccer team will be competing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday morning, when they will host Penn St.-Behrend at 11:30 a.m. It will mark the program’s first trip to the national tournament in five years and the first time that they have hosted the first two rounds of the tournament since 2011.
The Polar Bears are coming off of a 17-1-2 regular season, with their only loss coming in their first game, on Sept. 1. They were an automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament after winning the OAC regular season and tournament titles for the first time in school history.
ONU has given up just 11 goals this season, which leads the OAC. On Thursday, the OAC announced that nine members of the team earned all-conference honors this season.
One of those all-conference players is senior forward Anna Niemeyer, who was a first-team all-OAC selection. It was her third time being given all-conference honors as a Polar Bear. Niemeyer has played and started in all 20 games for ONU this season, and is third on the team in goals scored (7).
I talked to Niemeyer on Thursday in this week’s edition of The Pep Talk on Sportsbeat 94.9 about what it felt like qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time, how the team turned things around since their first game (a 4-0 loss to Albion (Mich.)), and what she looks forward to in their first round matchup against Penn St.-Behrend.
GP: I’m here with Anna Niemeyer, who, just about an hour ago, was named first-team All-OAC, which is your third time being given all-conference honors in four years. So, what’s that feel like?
AN: Honestly, for me it feels great. I’m a senior and I got second-team last year, freshman year I got honorable mention, so it just feels like all my hard work is really starting to pay off. It’s a great honor.
GP: You guys are coming into the NCAA Tournament having not lost since your first game, on Sept. 1. How long ago does that seem now and talk about what you think changed after that first game?
AN: It seems like that first game was years ago. I mean, it was a huge wakeup call for us. We hadn’t proved anything at that point, and I think people already thought that we had that respect, that we were a good team. We hadn’t proved anything yet, but since then, we’ve really gotten our act together. We’ve realized that nothing’s going to be handed to us and that we have to work hard for things. So, I think we went in with a little too much confidence in that game and since then, we’ve just realized [that] we’re the team to beat, anyone can beat us, so we’re always being chased.
GP: Since that game, a lot of freshmen have stepped up for you guys this year. Jenna Fuller (tied for team lead in goals scored, was named OAC Freshman of the Year) is one of them, at forward. So, talk about what it’s like playing with her and what she’s done well, as the Freshman of the Year in the conference, in stepping in this year and playing varsity.
AN: It’s been a blast playing with Jenna. That girl can just run everywhere. I think it’s worked really well with us just because I’m more of a stagnant player, where I’m usually not running to those balls as much, so it’s worked great. She’s always working hard, she’s always getting to that ball. I mean, she gets basically football-tackled every game and she’s right back up trying to chase the next ball. So it’s been a really big honor getting to play with her and getting to see her grow as a player. I mean, starting out as a freshman, you kind of have no idea to expect, really no idea what you’re doing. So it’s been great to see her really take on that role and develop into a great player.
GP: You guys won the OAC Tournament this year for the first time since you’ve been here, and you lost in the tournament finals two straight years, so talk about what it was like to get over that hump this year, and then also, that game against Otterbein (in the semifinals), where it came pretty close and got down to penalty kicks — how nerve-wracking was that game?
AN: The Otterbein game was definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, I took one of the penalty kicks and I was definitely nervous, but at the same time I was like, ‘We deserve this, this is our game.’ So, us three making our first three penalty kicks was great, and then the effort from [goalie Meagan Grierson] saving those — I mean, that’s not easy, she’s coming off the line and saving those — that was awesome. It was definitely a nerve-wracking game, but I was so proud that we were able to pull together at the end and get the win. And then coming out and beating Capital 2-0… [it was] just a great feeling because making it the past two years and not getting the result we wanted has definitely been a little tough, but we finally pulled it off. We kept working for it, we never gave up. We knew what our goal was and we reached it.
GP: This is your first time in the NCAA Tournament as a Polar Bear, and it’s been five years since you guys have been here as a program, and you get to host this year. So, what’s it mean to you guys, to be able to host, and what was it like seeing your name on the selection show on Monday?
AN: It’s almost unbelievable to me that we’re hosting. Like, obviously we put in the work and we had the results and everything, but it’s just — it’s surreal. It’s just great. We get to play on our home field, where I’ve been playing for the past four years. So, it’s just a great feeling and when we saw it on the TV, I think we all knew there was definitely a chance of us hosting but I know none of us wanted to get our hopes up. So, when we saw it, it was not only relief, but just so much joy. Like, ‘Hey, our hard work paid off and we get to host, and we get to play in the tournament.’ And it’s just an awesome feeling.
GP: You guys play Penn St.-Behrend on Saturday morning, and they’ve won their conference seven years in a row. So, what do you guys know about the Lions and what kind of game do you think it’ll be on Saturday morning?
AN: It’s going to be a competitive game. I’m pretty sure we both went undefeated in our conferences this year, and we don’t know a ton about them but we’ve seen how they stacked up against a couple of the teams we’ve played this season and in past seasons and we have that in the back of our mind. I’m sure coach has gotten his hands on some film and stuff so he’s going to prepare us, and I think we’re prepared. At this point, we know who we are as a team and we just have to go out and play like that, play our best, put in all we can and leave it all out on the field. And it’s going to be a good game, but we’re hoping for the win.