As freshmen in 2017, Rikki Myers and Jade Zimmer were part of a Northwest Nazarene women’s soccer team that qualified for the GNAC Tournament for the first time in program history.
As the COVID-19 delayed 2020 season comes to a close today, the seniors have a chance to do something truly unprecedented. With a win in today’s season finale at Western Oregon, the Northwest Nazarene can cap off the first perfect season the program has ever seen.
“When I was looking at soccer teams to play in college, I didn’t worry too much about records,” said Myers. “I was looking for a good education and just wanted a good coach and good team chemistry. But the fact that we’re at this point, now the record matters to me. I’ve been part of this team and growing the culture. To make it a winning culture, and potentially have an undefeated season, it would just be huge for our program and incoming recruits.”
Northwest Nazarene (10-0-0) won’t be awarded a GNAC regular season title, because the conference opted to allow its members to compete with independent schedules in the fall sports that had been postponed until spring. The GNAC and NCAA Division II Tournaments were both also canceled, so for the Nighthawks, today will mark a finality to the season, regardless of a win or a loss.
Earlier this season, Northwest Nazarene entered the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 rankings for the first time in program history. Entering today’s game, the Nighthawks are ranked No. 10 in the country.
“It’s been an exciting season to say the least,” said Zimmer. “I think we are all just ready to play and hold that title of a perfect season. It’s never been done before and it’s a big honor.”
It isn’t just that the program has never had an undefeated season. Given the history of the program, simply having a winning season is a big deal. Since Northwest Nazarene moved to the NCAA Division II ranks in 2001, the Nighthawks have completed just two seasons with a record above .500. In the first season at the Division II level, they went 13-9-0, but had a 4-8-0 record in GNAC play. In 2017, the Nighthawks went 11-7, finished tied for third in the GNAC standings and lost to Concordia in the conference tournament opener.
An undefeated season is something that hasn’t ever really been mentioned as even a possibility before.
“I think it would be a big accomplishment, because it’s never been done here before,” said McKenzie Buell, a senior who transferred from Highline (Wash.) College before the 2019 season. “Just to say that we’ve made a change in the program is huge. Our coach says right now it’s hard to keep up with recruiting because everyone is so interested in us now. I think it’s a big feat to show everyone, not just ourselves, that we’re capable of doing something big.”
Despite not having a ton of success in the past, this was something that coach Mary Ybarguen always believed was possible. Before the season began, the eighth-year coach told the team that they were capable of beating anyone on their schedule. While that might sound like coachspeak, it’s something she says she doesn’t think she had ever told a team before.
“Every game we come into, I always say ‘our best versus their best, that’s all we have to bring,’” said Ybarguen. “I hope the team brings their best, as well, because if we bring ours, we’re better. And I think they’ve gotten into that idea that we don’t have to have some special thing happen for us, have the right bounce or the ref making the right call, it’s in our control if we want to win.”
While teams like defending GNAC champion Western Washington and runner-up Seattle Pacific weren’t on the Nighthawks schedule, Northwest Nazarene did pick up a 1-0 win against NCAA Division I opponent, Idaho State, on Feb. 26. It was one of six shutouts Northwest Nazarene has posted this season, as Zimmer has helped anchor a defense that has allowed junior goalkeeper Alexis Montoya to post a 0.45 goals-against average on the season.
The other two seniors, Myers and Buell, have played huge roles for the Nighthawks, as well. Buell leads the team with seven assists and is second with five goals. Myers, who entered the season with 21 goals in her first three years as a Nighthawk, has only been credited with one goal on the year. And even that was an own goal that she said went off a Western Oregon defender and into the Wolves’ net during a 4-0 victory on March 29. But her four assists on the year trail only Buell and her leadership and experience has also helped key the Nighthawks to this point.
“I think it’s really neat that this group got to have joy with soccer, when it’s in a place where you’ve had a lot of uncertainty and hard stuff.” Ybarguen said. “Once we started winning, I think they were kind of like ‘let’s keep doing this.’ I think it’s been a good escape from having a hard, disappointing year of things getting cancelled and things changing.”
Because of COVID-19 changing so much in the collegiate sports world, the NCAA gave a blanket waiver to all student-athletes, giving them an extra year of eligibility. While Myers said she will be done after this season, both Buell and Zimmer are opting to return.
Zimmer had been accepted into the Firefighter Academy at College of Western Idaho and will have to reapply next year to get back in. But the chance to build on this season and play for a conference and NCAA Tournament appearance in the fall was an alluring opportunity for her.
“We’ve been working out a bunch of different kinks of team and ironing things out, just figuring out how to work with each other and get the chemistry down so we can take that into next fall when we have more on the line,” said Zimmer. “Rikki, she’s a starter and she’s not coming back, but the other 10 starters and the other 22 girls on the team are coming back. We have five more coming in, so it will be really exciting to take the history into next season.”
Myers, who has been working at a veterinarian’s office in Boise, said she is ready to move on to her post-college life and get started with her career. So, for her, today marks the end of her college career with no possibility of a postseason appearance. It’s a fact that she said she is at peace with, especially given the state of the world in the age of COVID-19.
“Those were canceled with the intent to stop the spread of coronavirus, so I have a lot of closure with that,” Myers said. “I don’t feel like ‘oh, man, I wish they had that,’ because I respect the safety measures that they are taking. I think it would be cool to see how we do against other teams in…