Athena soccer rejuvenated by surprise at-large NCAA bid after 5th place SCIAC finish

- A female athlete in white starts to run while a female athlete in blue stands behind them.
Rhiann Holman CM ’20 chases after the ball as it flies down the field Oct. 9. (Max Weirauch • The Student Life)

After its disappointing fifth-place SCIAC finish, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s soccer team (10-4-3, 6-4-2 SCIAC) had stopped practicing for the season, and some Athenas had even cleaned out their lockers. 

A week later, however, the team was given a shot a redemption, securing a spot in the NCAA tournament through an unexpected at-large bid.

The Athenas were one game away from making the SCIAC tournament for the second year in a row and were devastated by a 1-0 loss to Chapman on Nov. 2 that they thought had ended their season for good.

“As a senior, to have that be what I thought was my last college game … was really, really heartbreaking,” midfielder Gabby Clouse CM ’20 said.

Even though there was still a slim shot that they could make it to the tournament, after the Chapman game the Athenas effectively ended their season, she said.

“Those practices can be really, really hard — if you’re really not expecting to get in — it’s kind of painful to be out there with some expectations,” head coach Jennifer Clark said. 

However, after nine days into their out-of-season lives, the Athenas were given a second chance at their postseason dreams when their name was announced in the NCAA selection show to receive an at-large bid to the tournament. 

“As a senior, I didn’t get my hopes up after already experiencing those emotions, not making the tournament,” forward Kira Favakeh HM ’20 said.

Clark told her players to watch the selection show — just in case. When the first Athena heard CMS was selected for a bid — because her live stream was the most up-to-date — “everybody thought she was joking,” Clouse said. 

When the rest of the team caught up, “we were all cheering and hugging … it was huge and we were all so, so happy,” she added. 

When Favakeh found out about her team’s second chance, the rush of emotions brought her to tears. 

The week after their Chapman loss was “some of the lowest that I’ve been this semester, when I thought my season was over,” she said. “To completely flip the switch, it was really just a rush of emotions.”

The Athenas are especially excited to be going to the tournament because they thought their days of playing together were over. 

“It’s time we didn’t think we were going to get,” Clouse said. 

To qualify for the NCAA tournament, teams must either win their conference championship or have a strong record in out-of-conference games to warrant an at-large bid.

“We beat a lot of teams in preseason who traditionally do qualify,” like Illinois Wesleyan, Pacific Lutheran and Cal Lutheran, Clouse said, but “we hit some bad luck towards the end of season.”

 CMS is one of three SCIAC teams moving on to the tournament — a departure from the norm. 

“It’s time we didn’t think we were going to get.” — Gabby Clouse CM ’20

In recent years, SCIAC soccer teams have only gotten one or two bids to the national competition. The Pomona-Pitzer women’s soccer team was not allocated an at-large bid in 2018, despite finishing second in the SCIAC.

“It was also really nice to see the NCAAs start to recognize the level of difficulty here in SCIAC,” Clouse said. 

This will be the Athenas’ first NCAA appearance since 2016. Clark — who rejoined CMS Athletics again in 2017 after coaching the Athenas from 2000 to 2003 — also led her 2003 team to the NCAA tournament. 

The Athenas are feeling confident because “a lot of the teams that are in first round we’ve actually beaten before,” Clouse said.

Players view the selection as a testament to its players’ talent and a product of their hard work this season.

“This isn’t just something out of luck,” Clouse said.

Even though they hadn’t practiced in a week, Clark thinks her team’s time off might work to its advantage. 

“We’re the most well-rested team … because our legs did nothing for a whole week,” Clark said. “We have work to do to catch up, but we’re happy to fight that battle.” 

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