Soccer caps historic season with first MAC Championship


The Kent State soccer team celebrates after its first goal in the MAC Championship game against Northern Illinois University on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The Flashes would go on to win the championship, 1-0.

Carly Evans

Kent State and Northern Illinois University had been playing for 86 minutes with no score.

The Flashes were awarded only their second corner kick of the game. Senior forward Jenna Hellstrom ran over to take it. She raised her hand, ran toward the ball and blasted it into the Northern Illinois penalty box, a flood of red and gray jerseys.

The kick was deflected off to senior midfielder Abbie Lawson, who took her shot at the heavily guarded net. The ball deflected off a Northern Illinois player and came right to the feet of junior midfielder Kristen Brots.

“Abbie shot the ball and there was a deflection and I tapped in,” Brots said. “We were up 1-0 with four minutes left, and the whole team just ran in. We were so hyped and I think we knew that we could win after that.”

Brots’ goal with just under five minutes left in the second half gave the Flashes a 1-0 lead over the Northern Illinois Huskies and secured the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship for the first time in program history.

“It’s a great feeling to finally accomplish what we’ve set out to do for a very long time,” head coach Rob Marinaro said. “This is a great group of young ladies that really understood and embraces what it truly means to be a great team.”

With the game-winning goal coming so late, the Flashes had to deal with opportunities that didn’t come to fruition for most of the game, after a first-half goal was called back.

Kent State lined up for a free kick just yards outside Northern Illinois’ penalty box. The Flashes played quickly — not waiting for the Huskies to set up defensively —and Hellstrom took a short pass and found the side netting. The goal was originally counted; however, after much protest from the Huskies’ sideline the referee decided that the Flashes played without waiting for his go-ahead.

“At halftime, we didn’t talk much about it,” Lawson said. “We just said that something is bound to go our way. This whole year we’ve done a really good job of flipping things if it’s negative we flip it to a positive and roll with it, and I think that is a big part of our success.”

After 86 minutes of play, the Flashes were able to find the back of the net off a deflected corner kick.

“There wasn’t a point in the game where we really panicked,” Hellstrom said. “There’s been times where we really played the other team’s game and we didn’t stick to ours. Today throughout the whole 90 minutes we stuck to what our coaches wanted us to do and just kept fighting.”

Both Kent State and Northern Illinois had to play strong defensively. The Flashes and Huskies had 15 and 13 shots throughout the game, respectively.

“There’s some games where you have to get the win after great defense and great goalkeeping,” Marinaro said. “And when you get an opportunity just make the most of it. The patience that this team has really showed today. At the end of the day, we pulled it out.”

Eighth-seeded Northern Illinois was looking to continue the upset streak it had throughout the tournament. In the MAC quarterfinals, they knocked out No. 1 seed Ball State. In the MAC semifinals, they knocked out No. 4 seed Western Michigan – the 2015 MAC Champions.

“We took this game like any other,” Hellstrom said. “We tried not to get in our heads about the fact that it was the finals, and that we’re playing the No. 8 seed. Northern Illinois made it to this game for a reason. They beat the No. 1 and No. 4 seed. There’s not one team in the MAC where we knew we could we win. It’s really who comes to fight for 90 minutes that day.”

With an overall record of 15-2-2 (8-1-2 MAC), Kent State now holds the record for the most wins in a season in the program’s history.

“Looking at the big picture when we first started the season, we weren’t expecting this,” sophomore goalkeeper Ashleah McDonald said. “We were looking at that first game and that first 10 minutes. That’s all we were focused on, and every single game, that’s all it was.”

In his 16th season as head coach, Marinaro won MAC Coach of the Year for the third time in his career.

“I think Coach of the Year is a prize that goes to the best team,” Marinaro said. “It’s an award that the team earned for me. It shows everybody that day-in and day-out we were going to be a team to be reckoned with. And as coach, sometimes you get the recognition for that. So I pass it on to this team and a tremendous coaching staff.”

McDonald now holds the record for the most wins in a season by a Kent State goalie, with 14 games. McDonald made six saves, many of which were close calls.

“It’s just the pressure of the game,” McDonald said. “It’s the finals, we’re at home, I had the whole team behind me. I had to come out and show them exactly why we’re here. After every save you have to refocus and set the tone, then get back and reset. It’s not just about the save, but the after, where everyone comes together and decides not to let that happen again.”

With a 1-0 win, the defense tallied its ninth shutout of the season.

“You could not ask for a better back (line of defenders),” McDonald said. “They have my back, I have their back. We’re all communicating. If someone is pressing on the ball, the rest are balancing out the defensive line. So when that shot does come in they’re getting back as fast as they possibly can, so they can be ready for the next shot or deflection. Having that confidence in my back line is so uplifting and it’s one of the best parts of being on this team because I trust them.”

The senior class of forward Morgan Williams, defender Abigail LaVigna, midfielder Abbie Lawson, defender Brittany Maisano and Hellstrom now hold the record for the most wins in program history, with 48.

“I think it comes down to the group of girls,” Lawson said. “A lot of us have played together for years and you can tell that over time we’ve gotten stronger together. We really brought in the younger girls this year and taught them how we play and I think that shows and pays off.”

This season was also characterized by a 10-game winning streak, a 13-game unbeaten streak and a MAC East Championship.

“Looking at seasons past I thought that we had teams that were capable of accomplishing the MAC championship,” Marinaro said. “Sometimes we just got ahead of ourselves and starting looking at what other teams in the conference were doing. With this team, I thought if they just focused their energy on what they were capable of doing, it would be capable of a lot of great things.”

Sophomore defender Paige Culver, Brots, Lawson and Hellstrom were named to the MAC Women’s Soccer All-Tournament Team.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without the players around us and our coaches,” Hellstrom said. “The individual awards are great to be recognized but ultimately we got what we wanted as a team. We hosted (the tournament) we won (the championship) and that’s what it all comes down to. If it wasn’t for our coaches and teammates around us that stuff wouldn’t matter.”

As the MAC Champions, the Flashes earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The Flashes will learn the location and opponent Monday at 4:30 p.m. during the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Selection Show.

Carly Evans is a sports reporter, contact her at [email protected].