Billikens Look to Beat History

                Graphic by Ariana Magafas.

Sometimes pressure can turn a lump of coal into a diamond, but the same pressure can crush the coal into dust. That pressure is what makes or breaks a team.

 The 2022 Billiken Women’s Soccer team knows pressure. Since joining the Atlantic-10 Conference in 2005, the Billikens have had the second best win percentage in the conference at 62.7 percent, just behind Dayton and their impressive 74.9 percent. During this time, SLU Women’s Soccer Team were four time regular season champions, and have won the tournament six times, which included a four year championship streak starting in 2018. While the Billikens won the tournament last season, their disappointing regular season record has left some wondering if the dominance era of the team has come to an end. So far they’re proving those doubters wrong.

Billiken women’s soccer started their season with nine wins and a single loss. Despite being unranked to start the season, they have fought their way to being 8th in the nation on the Top Drawer Soccer week six poll. This is a marked improvement from last season, where the Bills never cracked the Top 25. Headed into week six the Billikens have the best record in the A-10 Conference, and the sixth best in the nation, at 9-1. At this point, last season TCU was in a similar spot to the Billikens now, with a 7-1 record and ranked 8th in the nation as of Top Drawer Soccer’s week six polls. TCU finished their season as number 10 and with a 19-2-3 record and finished their season in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament against eventual semifinalist Rutgers, which was the same team that ousted the Billikens from their title run last season. This bodes well for the Billikens and this year’s hope to make SLU women’s soccer’s first ever Sweet Sixteen appearance.

A key factor in their success is their brick wall defense, only allowing 6 goals in 10 games played. The Billiken’s defense is anchored by junior keeper Emily Puricelli along with starting defenders Brionna Halverson, a graduate student, and juniors Sophia Stram, Lyndsey Heckel and Katie Houck. Despite Puricelli only being sixth in the conference in saves, she has allowed the fewest goals out of any goalie with a comparable number of games played. Excluding a minimum number of games played, she is fourth in the conference in the fewest goals allowed. This is due to the defensive core led by Halverson. Their aggressive pressure on the ball has regularly forced turnovers before opposing offenses could take a shot at Puricelli, and if they could, the Billikens would deflect the shots or force them off target. Puricelli is not leading the conference in saves thanks to the backfield presence of Halverson, Stram, Heckel and Houck. Puricelli does not have a chance to make saves on behalf of their masterful pressure and tackling.

To complement their elite defense, the Billikens also sport one of the nation’s best offenses, ranked 11th in the nation in points per game. They host the nation’s 8th best scoring offense at 3.3 goals per game and are second in the nation in total goals with 33, tied with Pittsburgh and 4 goals behind Gardner-Webb. SLU’s dynamic and aggressive offense has consistently beaten down opposing defenses. The Billikens are second in the conference in shots on goal per game with 7.8. SLU’s aggression is not the only factor to their success, as their versatility means that even if one or even two of their potential scorers are shut down by the defense having off-nights, there are multiple players who can step up and score in their place. 

The Billikens currently have four players in the conference’s top ten in goals scored, other schools don’t have more than one. This also holds true for assists and points. Caroline Kelly, Emily Gaebe, Emily Groark and Hannah Larson have each scored at least four goals and are in the conference’s top ten in points. Kelly and Gaebe are joined by Hannah Friedrich and Anna Walsh in the conference’s top ten in assists. Groark, Gaebe and Kelly have each earned an A-10 Offensive Player of the Week award, with Kelly earning the College Soccer News Women’s National Player of the Week in early September. None of the other teams in the conference had multiple players win Offensive Player of the Week yet this season. None of the Billikens have attempted more than 3.3 shots per game, despite the team being second in the conference in that statistic with 16.5 shot attempts per game. The Billiken’s versatility overwhelms defenses and adapts to every barrier between them and the win, contributing to a conference-best margin of victory of 2.7, greatly surpassing second and third best teams, Davidson and Dayton, who each have a margin of victory of only 1.

Billikens head coach Katie Shields took control of the team in 2013 and while she had a slow start, she has established a winning system and has settled into a winning rhythm that has made the Billikens a force to be reckoned with since 2016. Shields likely knows the pressure the team is facing better than anybody, but is also the most well equipped to lead the team through it and turn them into the diamond she knows they can be.