FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Coming off a Big Sky Conference Championship in 2014, the bar was high for the Northern Arizona University women's soccer team heading into the 2015 campaign. The Lumberjacks ended the year with a winning record of 9-8-2, 4-4-2 in the Big Sky, notching a variety of impressive victories, individual accolades and even breaking some stadium records along the way.
Under Head Coach Andre Luciano's tutelage, Northern Arizona exuded a level of resiliency throughout the year that was not necessarily relied on in previous seasons. The 'Jacks found themselves in seven overtime matches, the most since 2011, among an ever-evolving and improving slate of non-conference and conference opponents.
Luciano pointed out that in the last seven years, from 2007 to 2014, NAU has played in a staggering 41 overtime matches. Of those 41 in that seven-year span, the Lumberjacks only lost three. In 2015, the box scores tell a different story. Of seven overtime games, Northern Arizona won one, tied two and lost four. But despite this rather uncharacteristic statistic of Luciano's squad, and the psychological battles that come with a handful of heart breaking losses, the 'Jacks found ways to win along the way. The team tallied four come-from-behind wins this season over Oakland, North Dakota State, Portland State and Weber State. Down 1-0 against both PSU and WSU at half, NAU walked away victorious.
The Weber State win on the Lumberjacks' home turf was a testament to the 11 seniors whose careers in a blue and gold uniform have come to an end. On senior day, veteran defender Torey Braly headlined the victory as she sealed the deal in overtime off an assist from senior forward Nicole Sherwin. This was NAU's only overtime victory this season, but one that improved its chances of qualifying for the Big Sky Tournament exponentially. Considering the team's 0-3 start to the season, two of which were overtime losses, the Lumberjacks showed tremendous growth and a 'never say die' attitude from start to finish.
This level of fight, going hand-in-hand with a true home field advantage, propelled NAU into its next five of six wins after dropping the first three. Although Northern Arizona only connected on a combined two goals in its first three contests, it was not long before Luciano had his team firing on all cylinders. From Sept. 4-20, the Lumberjacks exploded for 21 goals in four games, which landed them as high as 13th in the country in scoring offense during the first half of the season. Out of the team's nine wins, seven of them were in Flagstaff. Take into consideration the record-shattering attendance of 3,263 against Arizona and it makes sense why NAU had its best showing at home.
"I think the overtime losses were tough for us to deal with because we've never been in that situation before as a program," Luciano said. "We had a lot of home games in that winning-stretch which helped in terms of scoring. We also did a great job of when we had the lead, to hang on to it. If we scored first, there was a good chance that we win the game."
A total of 16 players scored in 2015 for the Lumberjacks including underclassmen Adrian Nixt, Chantal Deroos, Missy Kettelkamp and Mei-Te Coco along with junior Lindsay Doyle who tied Nixt with four. Ali Lixandru, Madeline Waszak, Haleigh Van Allen, Brooke Evans, Gabi Gibeault along with Deroos all recorded their first career goals in 2015.
If the surge of goals that came about early in the season was any indication of what is to come a year from now, the Lumberjacks should be in good hands. Although Luciano graduates a solid core of his team in players like Haley Wingender, Cierra Gamble, Emily Wadell and Braly who each claimed all-conference honors this year, in addition to Ashlynn Curnow, Lauren Doud, Hayley Sebald, Alexia Gonzalez and Sherwin, there were indeed bright spots that reached outside the senior class.
"We had a really talented group of seniors who have played a lot of minutes over the course of their careers," Luciano said. "I think they had really high expectations for themselves individually and I'm sure they are disappointed with how the season ended. We've had six different conference champions in six different years, which speaks volumes about the parody of the conference and how strong it is across the board. Hopefully the legacy they've left behind is that they were able to win a championship."
Perhaps the biggest offensive threat in the Lumberjacks' lineup this year was Wingender as she finished her four-year stretch as one of the best players to come through the program. The senior sits in the Top 10 in five statistical categories: third in career points (76), third in career goals (31), tied for first in game-winning goals (13), seventh in career assists (14) and fifth in career shot attempts (171).
In 2015 alone, Wingender tied her own single season point's record with 29 and her single season goals record with 12. She was named Big Sky Player of the Week on two separate occasions (Sept. 8 and Sept. 22) in addition to being named to the All-Big Sky First Team alongside the best in the conference. Academically, Wingender claimed CoSIDA First-Team Academic All-District honors with a 3.71 GPA in Bio-medical Science.
While Wingender was tabbed Player of the Week twice, Braly also earned her first career player of the week accolade after scoring the game-winner against Weber State. If the senior wasn't busy chasing down balls on the defensive end, she didn't have much trouble putting the ball in the back of the net the few times she was moved to the striker position.
Depending on the game, Braly was joined by either redshirt junior Natalie Gilbertson or sophomore Meghan Dickmann in NAU's back line. The two goalkeepers saw a lot of action this season, combining for a total of 88 saves. Gilbertson tallied 58 of the 88 saves and also posted three shutouts, two of which were shared. She officially moves into second all-time in program history for career shutouts and is seven away from tying the school record. Gilbertson's career saves total jumped to 198, which is good for sixth in program history. Dickmann appeared in nine games this season and amassed the remaining 30 saves for the Lumberjacks.
Gilbertson came up with her first shutout this season in NAU's 6-0 win over Alabama State (Sept. 4). On the offensive end, not only did six different Lumberjacks score a goal in this game, but it was also the most goals scored since 2008. The 'Jacks would do it again nearly two weeks later in their 6-1 win versus Robert Morris University. Two different players in Wingender and Doyle had multiple goal games in 2015. Wingender's came in the Alabama State win, while Doyle single-handedly lifted the 'Jacks over Portland State on Sept. 27 with two second-half goals.
The victory at Portland State was Northern Arizona's first conference win of the season, and nothing would come easy from that point forward. The Lumberjacks tied and lost their next two games against Montana and the eventual Big Sky Champions University of Northern Colorado. Although fate fell short against the Bears, Kettelkamp scored her second career goal with two seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime. This replaced a 13-year old Lumberjack Stadium for latest goal scored in regulation by a long shot.
Unfortunately, this was not the first or the last time NAU would walk away feeling like another win was within arms-reach. The 'Jacks chipped away at their chances to secure a Big Sky berth, and faced their final opportunity against Southern Utah in Cedar City. It was another scratch-and-claw from behind type game where Braly was the hero this time, tying the game up with roughly 13 seconds to go in regulation. It was a gutsy performance to say the least; but Northern Arizona was edged out of a postseason appearance by one point after the game ended in a double overtime draw.
"We were a really talented team, and I think what everybody has to understand is that our conference has gotten dramatically better since last year," Luciano commented. "When you have three of the four semifinalists of 2014 not even make the tournament, it shows that the conference has grown a lot. We had five overtime games in Big Sky play. I felt we were in every single game with the exception of two."
While it is easy to ponder the "what ifs" of the 2015 campaign, Luciano and his team did a lot of remarkable things this season that cannot slip through the cracks. It was a season of ups, downs and everything in between that ultimately squeezed every ounce of character and resiliency out of players one through 39. Whether it was breaking stadium records, attracting one of the biggest women's soccer crowds in the state, or thrilling overtime finishes, Northern Arizona has a lot to be proud of and even more to stand tall about moving forward.