In 1999, Mizzou made the NCAA Tourney with an experienced team--about half their starters were seniors--but there was certainly not the feeling that 2000 would see a setback. Pre-season All-American Nikki Thole was returning, and in all they were returning 39 of their 61 goals from '99. The '99 success was supposed to be simply a harbinger of things to come...only, it wasn't. The 2000 squad finished 10-10. The 2001 was a little better at 13-8, but they narrowly missed another tourney bid. The 2002 saw more of the same--an 11-7-2 record and another NCAA near-miss. The wheels weren't coming off the program by any means, but momentum had stalled.
In 2003, an interesting thing happened: Mizzou went only 11-10-1, including a 1-6-1 stretch during conference play...only, their schedule was so strong that they actually managed to not only sneak into the NCAA tourney powered by a late run of momentum that included their third trip to the Big 12 Tourney finals, but they actually got to host the first two rounds.
NCAA FIRST ROUND: Mizzou 1, Eastern Illinois 0
Mutigers.com: Mizzou Wins First NCAA Tournament Victory
After a lack luster first half, Mizzou didn't waste any time shining up the scoreboard during the second period. Just three minutes into play, Kristen Heil put Mizzou up 1-0 scoring her 10th goal of the season.
Preparing the scoring play deep in the midfield, forward Melissa Peabody sliced a pass to Adriene Davis in the midfield circle. One-touching a perfect pass to Heil at the top of the penalty box. Besting two EIU defenders and keeper Tiffany Groene, Heil deftly delivered the game-winner.
Turning up the offensive fire, Missouri outshot Eastern Illinois 13-to-5 in the second period. Groene had her hands full defending seven dangerous shots on goal. Despite her efforts however, the Panther offense could not muster a late period challenge. Grinding in and holding the line, Missouri's hard nosed defense endured to seal the Tiger victory.
Columbia Tribune: MU defenders put clamps on EIU’s Liesen
Lucky for the Missouri soccer team, history didn’t repeat itself last night.
The Tigers were clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the second half of last night’s NCAA Tournament opener against Eastern Illinois, but MU Coach Bryan Blitz couldn’t relax just yet because the Panthers had Beth Liesen on their side.
In the teams’ last meeting, almost two months ago, the Tigers held a 1-0 lead before Liesen scored two goals in the final five minutes. Missouri eventually won that game 3-2 in overtime, but Liesen left her mark.
"She’s certainly one of the top forwards in the country," Blitz said.
Liesen couldn’t help but remember what happened the last time she visited Columbia.
"Some of those thoughts were coming back," Liesen said. "We knew we just had to keep playing hard."
But Liesen couldn’t recapture the magic. Thanks in large part to a stifling MU defense led by defenders Ashley Gibbs and Erica Pusch, the Tigers clamped down on the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year as the Panthers looked to her virtually every time they were within striking distance of the MU goal.
Columbia Tribune: Missouri Plays it Cool
Having just squeaked into the tournament with a brilliant November run, this is a cool, confident bunch that’s right where it expected to be after surviving a difficult schedule and a season’s worth of costly injuries.
"We always expected to be here because of our strength of schedule and winning six of the last eight," Blitz said. "This is why our kids are such a special group - the way they fought back through all that adversity, through the Big 12 Tournament."
Missouri’s postseason run continues at 1 p.m. tomorrow against a familiar rival. The Tigers (12-10-1) play Kansas, the 13th seed in the tournament, at Walton Stadium with the chance to extend the longest season in team history another week.
Kansas (17-5-1) defeated Illinois State in the early game last night 3-1. The Jayhawks blanked Missouri 2-0 in the teams’ only meeting this season on Oct. 12 in Columbia. The Tigers were far from full strength in that game, missing three starters with injuries.
NCAA SECOND ROUND: Kansas 2, Missouri 0
Mutigers.com: Mizzou falls to #16 Kansas in NCAA Tournament
Just as Missouri's momentum was picking up however, the Tigers' rhythm slipped through their fingers. Midfielder Elyse Nikonchuk re-injured her knee forcing Coach Bryan Blitz to sideline Mizzou's defensive half back.
Mizzou's defensive squad continued its valiant efforts, thwarting Kansas in the backfield. Unable to best the Tigers one-on-one, the Jayhawk offense finally found fruition in one their nine cornerkicks. Lobbing a ball into the penalty box, the two teams batted the ball through the arcade of bodies until Smith caught a sharp foot on the ball and sailed it over the goal line.
Down 1-0 with just 13 minutes ticking on the clock, Missouri frantically tried to even out the score. Despite several extraordinary attempts by Davis, the Tigers struggled to come back. The frenzy opened up KU's second scoring play that dropped MU with a 2-0 deficit with just two minutes left to play. Kimberly Karfonta lofted a ball from midfield to Carmel Kaplinger who dribbled the ball to score.
Columbia Tribune: A painful end for Tigers
"I think the difference was the injuries to Elyse" Nikonchuk "and Amber" Swinehart, MU Coach Bryan Blitz said. "Those are two high-caliber kids, and we continued to fight all the way, but that’s tough to overcome."
Swinehart twisted her knee, and Nikonchuk suffered an injury to her big toe.
Blitz was pleased with his team’s play in the opening period. The Tigers (12-11-1) were creating scoring opportunities for themselves and shutting down KU’s leading scorer, Caroline Smith, but couldn’t capitalize on those scoring opportunities.
Columbia Tribune: Seniors bow out after memorable run
Although their season ended yesterday, Missouri’s seniors deserved plenty of credit for turning around their season.
"This group of kids have done more for our program than any before," Blitz said of seniors Adriene Davis, Megan Duncan, Stephanie Krawczyk and Melissa McLellan. "Just with wins and losses, it’s tough to tell why this group is so special, but they are."
Blitz said it started with that game against the Aggies on Oct. 19. Down 4-1 at halftime to the then No. 4 team in the country, the Tigers stormed back to win. It continued on Halloween in Ames, Iowa. Facing a must-win game to earn a berth in the Big 12 Tournament, the Tigers rallied from a 2-0 first-half deficit to win 4-3. The winning goal came off the foot of Davis.
Then came the run through the Big 12 Tournament in which Missouri knocked off top-seeded Colorado and Nebraska before falling to Oklahoma State 3-2 in double overtime of the championship game. And Friday, MU beat Eastern Illinois 1-0 for the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory.
"It was kind of tough going out to Kansas, but what can I say, this is the best we’ve ever done," Davis said. "We have to keep our heads high and hopefully this will leave a legacy, and next year maybe we’ll be back and make it to the Sweet 16."