Amy Annala saved two penalty kicks and Ashley Neubeck scored the winning penalty shot Sunday as the Northern Illinois University women’s soccer team advanced to the Mid-American Conference Tournament Semifinals for the first time since 2007.
The good news came thanks to a 4-3 penalty-shootout victory over Miami after the two teams played to a scoreless draw in regulation.
NIU won a penalty shootout for the first time in school history and became the first No. 7 seed to knock off the No. 2 seed in the MAC Tournament since 2006.
Annala (Oswego, Ill./Oswego) finished with six saves as the heroic Huskie defense shutout the most prolific offense in the MAC on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Miami Soccer Field in Oxford.
Allie McBride (Naperville, Ill./Neuqua Valley), Lauren Gierman (Prospect Heights, Ill./John Hersey), Emily Nulty (Omaha, Neb./Omaha) and Neubeck (Lindenhurst, Ill./Lakes Community) scored the four penalty kicks for NIU in the shootout in a dramatic conclusion to the match.
An ecstatic NIU head coach John Ross praised his players for their performances, especially Annala’s clutch display in regulation and the penalty kicks.
“We’re so proud of our team. They worked extremely hard, stuck to our game plan and gelled as a team offensively and defensively,” Ross said. “Everybody played an unbelievable match. Amy came up huge for us time and time again and then again in penalty kicks. We expected to win today, and we’ll go to Buffalo for the semifinals expecting to win there too.”
Having conceded two goals in the first half to the RedHawks in each of their last two trips to Oxford, the Huskies defended stoutly for the opening period while also creating a few chances.
Alex Elias (Phoenix, Ariz./Boulder Creek) had a great scoring opportunity from a corner kick well saved in the 25th minute, and Annala made three first-half saves to keep the match scoreless at the break, including two from MAC leading scorer Kelsey Dinges.
Early in the second half, Miami had its best two chances to score but the RedHawks uncharacteristically squandered both opportunities.
Then the Huskies started controlling the tempo and possession in the match, creating numerous chances through set-piece kicks by Gwen Sabo (Alton, Ill./Alton) and flip throw-ins by Sammy O’Brien (Aurora, Ill./West Aurora).
Miami almost won the match with four minutes remaining as a mishit cross sailed over Annala’s head and smashed against the crossbar, but the Huskies survived the scare and cleared the ball.
Neither team could find a breakthrough in regulation, and the match headed to 20 minutes of sudden-death overtime, which saw very few scoring opportunities and finished with the match still level at 0-0.
Having recorded the most saves in a season for NIU season, it was no surprise that the fantastic freshman Annala made the difference for the Huskies to keep their season alive, brilliantly saving Miami’s first two penalty kicks to give the Huskies an advantage it wouldn’t relinquish.
NIU converted four of its five attempts under pressure from the penalty spot, and when Neubeck fired her shot into the net, the Huskies stormed onto the field and celebrated their historic triumph.
“It’s an amazing feeling to advance to the semifinals, especially with it being my senior year,” Neubeck said. “This program hasn’t had this type of success in a long time, so we’re so proud to be the team to get back to the MAC Semifinals.”
The NIU women’s soccer team will face Western Michigan in a semifinal clash Friday at host Buffalo, who faces Ball State in the other semifinal.
For more information on NIU women’s soccer and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.