Nothing routine about Conn College women's third NCAA trip in four years

Zoe Stublarec (4) of Connecticut College runs up against Rachel Samotis (12) and Kylee Ballard (9) of Coast Guard a game Sept. 20. The Conn women's soccer team is headed to its third Division III NCAA tournament in four seasons. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Zoe Stublarec (4) of Connecticut College runs up against Rachel Samotis (12) and Kylee Ballard (9) of Coast Guard a game Sept. 20. The Conn women's soccer team is headed to its third Division III NCAA tournament in four seasons. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Playing in the NCAA tournament is becoming part of the Connecticut College women's soccer team's fall routine.

For the third time in four years, the Camels are preparing for an appearance in the Division III post-season party.

"It never gets old," senior captain Nicole Medina said. "It's an honor, honestly. A lot of teams don't get a chance to even say they made it once. So it's a great opportunity."

They've accomplished that program-record feat by focusing on the daily process rather than lofty expectations.

"Expectations are dangerous, aren't they?" coach Norm Riker said. "You have to be careful with that. That's where our culture comes in. We have a formula for success that we talk about, and one is just day to day. Be very present, one game at at time. So that's helped us create a great resume.

"Once that resume is created, some expectations creep in a little bit. Two colleagues said to me today, 'I just expected that you were getting in so I didn't even congratulate you.' But they did. I appreciate that very much. It's a compliment as well. It's a great honor to be in the national tournament three out of four years and represent the college and be able to play on the big stage."

Riker leads an experienced, tournament-tested team in first-round action against Wilkes University (13-3-1) Saturday in Baltimore. Game time is 1:30 p.m. Host John Hopkins (15-2-3) and Staten Island (13-5-1) meet in the other game. Winners play on Sunday.

Most of these Camels have tasted postseason success, winning a first-round game in each of their last two trips before bowing out in the second round.

They're also heading to familiar territory, having played at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., in the 2016 tournament.

"It gives the team confidence," Riker said. "The players are confident in the ideas the coaches come up with. Then the players also know we've been here before and this isn't new. They're relaxed as they can be. They know what to expect."

This season, Riker has leaned heavily on his senior class, nicknamed "the Nuclear Nine because they made an impact and certainly are explosive and have done great stuff for us."

The team's talent stretches beyond the senior class.

Riker regularly goes deep into his bench. Nineteen players saw action in at least 11 games this season. Freshman Kat Norton is the leading scorer with seven goals while senior Michelle Medina (four goals, three assists) and junior Alex Baltazar (four goals, two assists) also are scoring threats.

Senior goalie Bryanna Montalvo, who owns a 0.63 goals-against average, anchors a stingy defense that has allowed just 10 goals. Her diving saves during penalty kicks sealed the NCAA first-round win over Scranton last fall.

The Camels also share a tight bond that has helped them to survive tough battles in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. They hold each other to a high standard and each player embraces their role, no matter how small.

"I just like the connection we have with each other," said Mia Santana, a sophomore from New London. "We all work well with each other and have great communication, on and off the field. I think the culture is definitely important. Having the same values is the reason why we win and the reason we have so much success."

There's a good chance for the Camels to add to their successful resume this weekend.

Riker and his coaching staff worked overtime preparing a game plan for Wilkes, which will be making its second NCAA appearance.

"We know what Wilkes does and we're prepared for them," Riker said. "We do like the bracket that we're in. They're all going to be difficult."

g.keefe@theday.com

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