By John Torenli
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The LIU-Brooklyn women's soccer team had just one goal in mind when it began the 2012 season: Get back to the NCAA Tournament!
Coach Tracey Bartholomew's determined squad used a frantic late-season push to accomplish that mission, grabbing its second consecutive Northeast Conference crown with Sunday's 1-0 victory over St. Francis in Loretto, Pa., to set up Saturday's showdown with No. 3 Penn State in the opener of the NCAAs in State College, Pa.
"One of the things, when we set up our schedule this year, was to play very good teams because our goal was to win the NEC Championship and go back to the NCAA Tournament," noted Bartholomew, who has guided the Blackbirds to three NEC titles during her 13-year tenure at the Downtown Brooklyn school.
"These are the moments you love to see as a coach for a player," she added. "They're so proud of the moment as well. True champions come from perservering. They decided they wanted to feel a moment like that again."
Ironically, it was a 1-0 loss to the Red Flash in Loretto just six weeks ago that saddled LIU with an ugly 2-7-1 mark on the season, leaving them winless in their first two conference games as defending champs.
But Bartholomew's tough schedule-making, which featured road contests against the likes of Seton Hall, Colorado, Denver, Syracuse and Iona, doubtlessly steeled the Blackbirds for a season-ending run for the ages.
When senior Toni Smith scored what proved to be the game-winner against St. Francis on Sunday, and NEC Tournament MVP Jessica Sexton made the last of her
seven saves to preserve the shuout, the Blackbirds became proud owners of an amazing 10-game unbeaten streak (8-0-2), including a season-high six straight wins as they prepare for the Lady Lions this weekend.
"I know these girls will do everything possible to prepare themselves to go win a game," Barholomew said as the Blackbirds geared up for their tournament opener.
"We just wanted another chance to prove we were good enough to be in that tournament."
Seniors Nicole Labo, Lauryn Bretches, Jeanette Dolmetsch, Katie Egan and Angie Young all get to play at least one more game for the Downtown Brooklyn school, unless, of course, the Blackbirds post their first-ever NCAA Tournament win with a stunning upset of Penn State this weekend.
Judging from how far they've come in the last six weeks, it's hard to count the Blackbirds out at any time, in any place, against any opponent.
"Obviously, we're going to do our homework [on Penn State] to prepare and go out to State College and have a great game," Bartholomew said.