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Hewitt: College Cup Still Uphill Climb for Women’s Soccer

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Courtesy of Villanova Athletics
Graduate goalkeeper Payton Woodward has had four shutouts this season.

A little less than two years ago, Villanova’s women’s soccer program seemed to be rudderless. In October of 2021, Chris McLain resigned as head coach as the team was amid a skid that would see the ‘Cats drop 10 of their last 11 games. They would finish the fall 2021 campaign tied for last in the Big East.

What a difference two years can make.

The ‘Cats, now led by head coach Samar Azem, are off to an undefeated start through the first nine games of the season. The ‘Cats have won four and drawn five, good for a winning percentage of .722. For a program that has only had two winning campaigns since 2009, it’s a pretty good start. 

It will still be an uphill battle for the ‘Cats to reach the NCAA College Cup, as RPI currently has them ranked 131st in the nation. That said, going through non-conference play undefeated can’t hurt the team’s case, and the remainder of Big East play should be a good enough crucible to forge a resume of steel if Villanova can keep up or stay near to its current pace.

Defense has been the story of the ‘Cats’ season so far. They’re tied for 26th nationally in goal-against average, having only given up five goals in nine games. The ‘Cats’ defense has also yet to give up a multi-goal game to any opponent.

As with any good defense, it starts with the keeper. Graduate student Payton Woodward has been stellar in between the sticks for the ‘Cats, playing all 810 minutes that the ‘Cats have been on the field. After stops at Kentucky, Portland and Arkansas, it seems as though Woodward has found a place to thrive in Villanova. She saw the field a bit last year for the ‘Cats, playing in four games. Now as she’s seen more time on the pitch, she’s started to show some elite goalkeeping. She’s recorded four shutouts across nine games, including a shutout draw at West Virginia, and has a save percentage of 80.8% on the year. 

The ‘Cats’ back line has also been excellent in the early part of the year. A lot of the time, the defense isn’t allowing the opposition to get shots in the direction of Woodward. Villanova opponents are averaging just over nine shots a game, and the ‘Cats have had four games where the opposing team is limited to fewer than 10 shots.

Freshman defender Ire Omotayo was just named Big East Freshman of the Week for her efforts in the Seton Hall match, as she helped the defensive unit stave off a hearty comeback attempt from the Pirates. She’s been a great addition for the ‘Cats, starting all nine games and playing all 90 minutes in the last seven games. 

The ‘Cats have also shown a good level of connection on offense. They’re averaging 2.11 assists per game, good for 45th across the entire NCAA. Junior forward Megan Donnelly leads the team with four, but 12 different Wildcats have notched an assist over the first nine games of the season. 

While all these statistics point in a good direction for the ‘Cats, the team will need to learn how to win close games. Seton Hall was a good stepping stone in that direction, with it being the ‘Cats’ first win this season in a game decided by one goal. The remainder of Big East play should provide lots of opportunities for the ‘Cats to get into and finish close games.

As highlighted earlier, it will be an uphill climb for the ‘Cats to reach the College Cup, even with their undefeated start. Xavier on Sept. 28 should provide a tough test, as the Musketeers received votes in the last United Soccer Coaches’ poll, but the only opponent on the ‘Cats schedule that is currently ranked is Georgetown. The Hoyas are ranked at 17th and the ‘Cats are traveling to Washington D.C. on Oct. 12. Strength of victory and strength of schedule are important metrics the selection committee uses to determine which programs get into its field of 64.

The ‘Cats haven’t reached the College Cup since 2009. While it may be a tall task for the ‘Cats to get back there, they haven’t shown anything less than what it would take to achieve that feat yet this season.

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Owen Hewitt, Co-Sports Editor
Owen Hewitt is one of two Co-Sports Editors in 2024. Entering his second year in this position, he is a Communications major specializing in journalism. Owen is a Memphis native and a die-hard Grizzlies fan, although his main loyalty lies with Memphis 901 FC. When not writing about basketball or soccer, Owen can often be found on stage, performing as part of Villanova's improv team Ridiculum. Owen has many goals in life, including going into sports journalism as a profession, but his main goal — always — is to stay jitty with it.
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