FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona University women's soccer team was picked fifth in the Big Sky preseason polls – they finished third. The NAU women's soccer team lost four of its first five games – they finished the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak. Few expected the NAU women's soccer team to even qualify for the postseason – they made it to the championship round. The NAU women's soccer team started the season 1-4 – they finished 5-2 in the final stretch.
So, what is the moral to the story?
Head Coach Andre Luciano and the Lumberjacks team defied expectations to finish the 2016 campaign 10-7-5 overall with a 5-2-3 mark in Big Sky action. The talk surrounding this year's team was youth – with 26 of Northern Arizona's 36-player roster being underclassmen – but it was youth among several other curveballs that NAU overcame this season.
"A great word for this team is resilient," Luciano said. "They bought into a concept of playing for something bigger than themselves and that stood out to me this year, along with the amount of fun they had while doing that."
Despite an emotional roller coaster that was the first five games of season, between injuries and struggling to put away opponents, it wasn't long before the 'Jacks pulled a complete 360.
Northern Arizona won just three games in the non-conference, but the game at Colorado College seemed to be the turning point. This overtime victory served as the springboard into a rather prolific Big Sky campaign. The Lumberjacks only lost two more games the rest of the season, reeling in an impressive 7-2-4 record.
"I feel like every weekend we just got better, even in the games that were setbacks," Luciano said. "I definitely believe that this team grew exponentially as the season progressed. Even though we were young, you could see our players mature. What really set us apart down the stretch was the players that didn't have experience as freshmen and sophomores really stepped up as juniors and seniors."
The chemistry of this year's squad only grew stronger as NAU got deeper into the season. A total of 11 players scored at least one goal, with five tallying their first career goals including freshmen Malia Lyken, Amanda Bennett and Shelbie O'Connor, in addition to junior Riley Porter and redshirt freshman Carly Gamble. Out of 11 true freshmen, O'Connor and Bennett were the only two to appear in every game.
"I think my favorite moment from this season was seeing the camaraderie and friendships that developed over the course of the year," Luciano noted. "I loved seeing how integrated our freshmen were with our seniors and upperclassmen. Witnessing that give and take between all the players is really something that sticks out to me, more so than a win or a signature moment. Those relationships were really special to see and I hope we continue to replicate that."
O'Connor ended her rookie campaign with one goal and three assists at forward. Bennett, on the opposite end of the field, played the second-highest number of minutes behind Porter at defender and was often tasked with shutting down the biggest offensive threats of opponents. She started all but one match in 2016 and played a total of 1,827 minutes. In 15 games, Bennett played every minute. Deservingly so, she was an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selection.
Bennett was one of five Lumberjacks who earned all-conference nods. Other honorable mention selections were Gamble and seniors Missy Kettelkamp and Lindsay Doyle. Adrian Nixt was named to the All-Big Sky First Team after stringing together an impressive stint as a junior. The Portland, Ore. native led the way offensively for the 'Jacks and finished the year with 21 points. Her nine goals – five of which were game-winning goals – and three assists were good for a fourth place mark among conference foes.
Nixt's list of individual season and now all-time career statistics is a lengthy one. In her career, she falls in the Top 10 in NAU program history in points (45), goals (18), shots (127) and game-winning goals (8). In 2016 alone, Nixt finished in a tie for eighth in points (21), a tie for 10th in points per match (1.00), a tie for ninth in goals (9), a tie for third in game-winning goals (5), a tie for sixth in shots (57) and 10th in shots per match (2.71).
Her five game-winning goals were also good for a Top 20 mark in the country in the regular season and first place in the Big Sky. Nixt is not the only Lumberjack, however, to make history. Doyle and junior goalkeeper Meghan Dickmann etched their names into the NAU all-time record books as well. Doyle capped off her final season in a Lumberjack uniform in a tie for ninth in career goals with 13 – five of which came in 2016 – and a tie for second in number of games played at 79 dating back to 2013.
Dickmann, still with another year to go, ended up with 101 saves in 2016, including a career-best 13 saves at Idaho, which is good for seventh in NAU individual season records. She also notched five shutouts in her junior stint – eighth in school history – and ended the year with a win percentage of .571 at 10-6-4. In Dickmann's career, she now sits at eighth in program history in saves (142) and is second in career win percentage with a .589 (14-9-5) clip.
Freshman Heather Donais, senior Ali Lixandru and junior Anna Goebel join elite company in Doyle, Nixt and Dickmann for having notable 2016 seasons. Donais led the team in assists this year with six, but one of her most impressive games came in the 2-2 double overtime draw against Montana. A product of Kennewick Washington, Donais' two assists in the final minutes of the game ultimately helped NAU escape a digit in the 'L' column. Lixandru and Goebel, too, had their best seasons to date.
Lixandru finished her senior campaign with 11 points – third best on the team – including four goals and three assists. One of her goals came in the Big Sky Conference Championship game against Eastern Washington to give NAU a 1-0 edge at halftime. Although this same game ended in the Eagles' favor to advance to the NCAA Tournament, the Lumberjacks still had one sweet victory over EWU in the regular season that snapped its 10-game, two-month unbeaten streak.
Goebel – who had just one goal in the regular season – was another Lumberjack alongside Lixandru to contribute offensively in the conference tournament. Goebel came alive in Northern Arizona's quarterfinal and semifinal matches as she notched the game-winners in both and finished the tournament with three goals.
Her brace against Sacramento State, which ultimately carried NAU into the championship round, landed her on the all-tournament team along with four other Lumberjacks. Dickmann, Nixt, Porter and Doyle were the others named to the 13-player all-tournament team roster.
After a heartbreaking loss that came down to penalty kicks in the Big Sky Championship game, Luciano and his young team embraced the six seniors whose careers came to a sudden halt.
"Our upperclassmen and seniors just had a never quit attitude," Luicano said. "They were in so many close games last year that they became resilient and had this 'we aren't going to lose this game' mentality. They consistently fought for us. That in itself speaks volumes about who they are as people and what they bought into this season."