Bearcats get a piece of conference title again, but no NCAA berth

SALEM — For the Willamette University women’s soccer team, 2002 was a season of great accomplishment — and great disappointment.

On the positive side, the Bearcats tied Puget Sound for the Northwest Conference championship, kept their 62-game home unbeaten streak intact, placed six players on the all-conference squad and were ranked in the top 10 nationally all season long.

Despite all those accomplishments, the Bearcats (16-2-1 overall, 12-1-1 NWC) were not chosen to take part in the 45-team NCAA championship tournament.

“Sure, it was a big disappointment not getting into the tournament. We deserved to be there. But we had a great season and every one of our kids should be proud of what we accomplished,” said head coach Jim Tursi, whose WU teams have won or shared nine NWC titles in his 10 seasons.

Tursi didn’t know quite what to expect when the season began. After losing All-Americans Buffy Morris and Karen Heaston to graduation, the Bearcats had big shoes to fill. Three transfer students and a host of talented freshmen merged nicely as the Bearcats began the season ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Forwards Anne Merten (No. 2 in the NWC in points with 13 goals and six assists) and Nicole Dahl (No. 5 in scoring with 12 goals and two assists) were both named to the NWC all-conference first team. The pair was joined on the first team by senior midfielder Emily Kern and sophomore midfielder Naomi Baez.

Junior defender Stacy Clarke was named to the second team. Senior defender Laura Kunnert capped an excellent four-year career as she was named honorable mention All-NWC.

“At the beginning of the year, I really thought it would be tough for us to repeat as conference champions,” said Tursi. “With so many new players, we had to come together quickly — and we did. The individual awards our kids received were tribute to all of their hard work.”

It was a late season tie to Whitworth and a 3-0 loss to UPS that cost the Bearcats the outright NWC title and the automatic bid to the tournament. Puget Sound won the automatic berth by virtue of winning the tiebreaker with Willamette and has advanced to the Final 8 of the national tournament.

Tursi also had high praise for junior transfer Joey Muchlinski and freshman midfielder Brenna Hindman.

“Joey had just a tremendous season and should have earned some postseason honors. And Brenna Hindman really showed she will be a force to be reckoned with in coming years,” said Tursi.

On the offensive side, Merten and Dahl were the team’s top scorers. Merten led the league in shots (105) and game-winning goals (6). Dahl was tied for third in scoring with her 12 goals.

Senior goalkeeper Shelby Springer, fronted by a top defense, led the NWC in shutouts with seven.

“We’ll have some holes to fill due to graduation (Kern, Kunnert and Springer all graduate this year). But we’ve got a solid core of players coming back. And with another year of experience, we should be challenging for the conference title again next season,” said Tursi.