Women's Soccer Missouri Valley Champions

A winning season

Senior Jenna Szczesny was practically vibrating in her seat on Tuesday afternoon, thinking about the week ahead. It had only been 48 hours since the Loyola women’s soccer team had qualified for their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in school history (and their first in 11 years). In a few hours, she and her teammates would hold one final practice in Chicago. The next afternoon, they’d hop a plane to Charlotte and then another to Tallahassee, Florida. And on Friday night, they’d suit up for a first-round tilt with the Florida State Seminoles, one of the country’s most dominant teams.

When the bracket was released, Szczesny’s jaw dropped. Her teammate, freshman Abby Swanson, was equally stunned, and thrilled about the opportunity: “I don’t think any of us have played in a game of this magnitude before.”

In Tallahassee on Friday, the Ramblers needed all the grit they could muster. From the start, Loyola held strong, until early in the second half when the Seminoles scored the first and only goal made by either team. Florida State entered the NCAA tournament as one of four one-seeds, coming off a conference tournament victory, in the powerhouse Athletic Coast Conference. The Seminoles are deep and skilled, rostering several players with youth and national team experience. When the draw was announced on Monday afternoon, Bimbi had a few minutes to glance at game film, an exercise that left him slightly intimidated but mostly motivated. “Our girls have played some tough teams, in some tough environments,” Bimbi said. “They’ll stand tall in the moment, I know that.” Even in the final minutes of the match-up, the Ramblers refused to give Florida State an easy pass on to the next round of the tournament.

Szczesny, for her part, couldn’t wait to walk onto the pitch for her first NCAA tournament match, the culmination of a decorated collegiate career. Her Ramblers, after back-to-back winning seasons, are decidedly on the rise. And while they hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent in 2018, Szczesny and company were ready and able to show some Floridians, and the rest of the soccer world, what they could do.

Looking back, there’s one moment from preseason training that occasionally flashed through Szczesny’s mind. The team was jogging around the Lake Shore Campus, stretching their legs, when a thunderstorm ripped through Rogers Park. To avoid the rain, they hustled inside the Norville Center atrium and started to stretch. Directly above them was a mounted flat screen television flashing highlights from last season’s men’s basketball Final Four run.

One by one, in complete silence, Szczesny and her teammates paused to relive the magic. Head coach Barry Bimbi had tears in his eyes.


NCAA tournament appearances in women's soccer history


The Ramblers' W-L-T record in 2018

They have that ‘It’ factor, that quality you can’t really put your finger on.”
— Barry Bimbi, head coach

The road to Tallahassee

To secure that NCAA nod required a dramatic comeback in last weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament championship game, a rain-soaked affair, where the Ramblers poked in two late goals with 20 minutes to play—upending second-seeded Drake, 3-2. Hoyne Field was stuffed with rowdy alumni and fans, all of whom braved dreary November conditions to create a legitimate home-field advantage. Swanson, who slotted in the tying goal, said the atmosphere was the most electric she’d ever played in. “It was really loud, especially after that 2-2 goal. We knew we weren’t done yet.”

A sweep of both the regular season and the conference tournament titles capped the most successful campaign in Bimbi’s eight-year tenure at Loyola. His squad finished the regular season ranked 23rd nationally in offense, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 40-22. Before Florida State, they’d won five games in a row and eight of their last nine. Szczesny—a native of nearby Hoffman Estates, Illinois—was named the MVC Player of the Year, recording a team-leading 11 goals to go along with seven assists. Swanson added five of her own, and took home Freshman of the Year honors. Best of all, the Ramblers never shrunk from a challenge. “They have that ‘It’ factor, that quality you can’t really put your finger on,” Bimbi said. “It showed its head in the conference final. Going down early in the second half, a lot of teams that have weaker character would have folded. This team isn’t built like that.”


Average goals scored per game


in the country for goals-per-game average


Road wins in 2018