Last weekend, a confluence of events led to three Valparaiso teams having the opportunity to face squads from one of the nation's premier conferences in the Big Ten within a 72-hour stretch. And by the end of the weekend, not one, not two, but all three teams had stepped up to the challenge and earned victories over their Big Ten opponents.
And while the results of the games made for historic moments for all three programs, perhaps the biggest thing that came out of the weekend was a mantra repeated over and over - confidence. Confidence not only for each of the three programs moving forward this season, but also the hope that confidence can spread throughout the athletic department, so that every Valpo team has the confidence going into games that they can be the next team to earn that big victory.
First up was the women's soccer team, who welcomed Northwestern to Brown Field on Thursday night. For the Crusader women's program, they had already earned a milestone win earlier in the year, defeating DePaul in their season opener for their first-ever win over a major-conference opponent. With that result in their back pocket, they entered the fixture against Northwestern ready to take on the Wildcats.
"Beating DePaul earlier this season really gave us a lot of confidence going into the Northwestern match," said Tara Ellis. "We've also played Northwestern multiple times during our spring season, and they've always been really tight matches."
As it has been all season long, the Crusader defense held strong once given the lead on a 33rd minute goal by freshman Katriona Anesini, keeping the Wildcats at bay and allowing just four shots on goal, all of which were saved by goalkeeper Kristen Manski to secure the 1-0 victory, the Valpo women's soccer program's first ever against a Big Ten team.
"I thought we started off the game really strong," said Ellis. "Our attacking patterns were going well, and then Kat comes off the bench - two minutes later, the ball was in the net. Defensively, we did a good job keeping Northwestern where we needed to keep them. We stayed on the players we needed to mark throughout the game."
Two nights later, it was the volleyball team's turn to face a Big Ten foe, as the Crusaders had a showdown against Iowa for the Popcorn Classic championship. Having taken down Indiana in Bloomington a season ago for its first-ever win against a Big Ten opponent, Valpo was eager to do the same in front of its home crowd this season.
The first set, Valpo came out and led nearly start-to-finish in taking the lead over the Hawkeyes. The next three sets would all be nip-and-tuck battles, featuring a total of 38 tie scores and 15 lead changes. But the Crusaders stood toe-to-toe with Iowa and came out ahead in both the second and fourth sets to defeat a Big Ten opponent for the second straight year.
"It's huge, knowing that we are able to compete with a Big Ten team and that all our hard work is truly paying off," said Janelle Hobbs. "It was great this year to be at home as well, to show our fans what its like to beat a Big Ten team and to be able to protect our house against that type of team."
"When you're talking about beating a Big Ten team in volleyball, a team from a league that's second in the nation in RPI, it's a really big deal," said head coach Carin Avery. "And now to be able to do it two years in a row is just an awesome achievement for our girls and our entire program."
Finally, just 15 hours after the volleyball team concluded its victory, the men's soccer team took the pitch in East Lansing to take on a top-25 Michigan State team. Having played right with Michigan State, along with some other quality sides, a number of times over the past few years, the Crusaders knew the test that they were in for Sunday afternoon.
"The more opportunities we have to play teams of this caliber, the more competitive we become each and every time out," said head coach Mike Avery. "We want to be a team that not only wins our league, but plays deep into the NCAA Tournament, and history has shown that this is the type of first-round game the Horizon League representative draws. Having that game under our belts, whatever the result, lets us know we can be competitive in that game when that opportunity comes."
Todd Vervynckt gave Valpo the lead midway through the first half, a lead which would stand up for nearly 45 minutes before Michigan State equalized in the 67th minute. Unfazed, the Crusaders stood their ground, striking back inside of 12 minutes later, as Nick Suker found the back of the net for what would be the match-winning goal in the 2-1 win. The victory was the men's soccer program's second over a Big Ten team in the last decade.
"We talked about it with our guys before - there's a few opportunities each season to create special moments, by winning the bigger games on the schedule - the game that will really set the season apart," said Avery. "I was really proud of the guys on Sunday, because they took the opportunity and seized it - they were not fearful at all. We went straight out and played, and I'm most proud of the fact we didn't luck into the win - I felt, on the day, we were the better team and we earned it."
While the wins over Big Ten opponents for all three programs were impressive, for each team, they are but just one game over the course of a long season. More important goals lie ahead for the programs - the Horizon League regular season, the league tournament and trying to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
The results of last weekend's games don't count towards the league standings, but still will prove worthwhile in the end, as the one theme which surfaced again and again was the confidence the wins would give the teams moving forward as they approach league play.
"We want to challenge ourselves - we want to find out how good we can be," said women's soccer head coach John Marovich. "Ultimately, the goal is to prepare our team for Horizon League championship play, so you schedule these games to help prepare you for that ultimate goal. We learn how to hang on to a game against a team at that level, a pressure situation that we can't replicate in training. Playing a game like that, it gives you confidence going forward."
"I think a win like this ends up being a definite confidence builder," said men's soccer player Tom Serratore. "Most of the games in the Horizon League tend to be very close games, and then you get to tournament time and you face high-pressure situations. Now we have under our belts a close game on the road against a Big Ten team, a high-pressure situation, and we've been able to manage the game and come out with a win - knowing that we've done it before will give us confidence when we face that type of game later in the year."
"It just gives us the confidence that it doesn't matter who is on the other side of the net," said Hobbs. "Just as long as we take care of our side, how we're playing, we can make great things happen."
And while the individual programs gain confidence from their invididual results, the athletes also see other teams' victories, such as softball and baseball's victories in the NCAA Tournament a season ago, and look to step up and be the next team to get that big win for the athletic department.
"I think it goes back to 2011 when we were the first Valpo team to win the Horizon League, something that hadn't happened yet," said Serratore. "We broke that door down, and now it seems like we're constantly winning league titles. When other teams are winning big games, we see it with the mentality of 'why not us too?'. There's no reason to think we can't compete with these teams when we see other teams winning these games - I think we all gain confidence from each other's successes."
"I think it is really a ripple effect," said Ellis. "Here at Valpo, we're all really very supportive of our fellow student-athletes, whether its in person at the ARC, attending each other's games, tweeting at each other on social media. I think seeing all these other teams winning, there's a real big drive to want to win - to be the next team to get that big win and to be the next team to get a league championship ring."
"You see other teams win big games, and you're happy for them," said Hobbs. "At the same time, we want those kind of wins just as badly for ourselves too. We want to be one of those teams raising the bar for the entire athletic department, and I think everybody feels the same way."