Butler head women’s soccer coach Tari St. John said she and her staff knew all along that there was something special about this year’s squad.
The Bulldogs (8-10, 6-2 HL) proved their coaches right when they clinched the Horizon League regular season championship on Sunday.
The Butler women’s soccer team will host the Horizon League Tournament thanks to a 1-0 win Sunday against Cleveland State and Milwaukee’s loss to Wright State.
Senior defender Sarah Phelps scored the game-winning goal on a penalty kick in the 56th minute.
Phelps, who suffered a concussion in the team’s win against Milwaukee, was making her return from a three-game absence.
Five days prior to the match versus the Vikings (9-7-2, 5-3 HL), her mother passed away from a brain tumor.
“I knew that she would be watching over me,” Phelps said. “My dad and I talked about it and I decided that there was no question. She would have wanted me to play.”
Butler went into Sunday’s contest three points behind Milwaukee in the conference standings. The match could have been the seniors’ last ever in the Butler Bowl.
But the Raiders’ shocking upset of the Panthers helped ensure that wasn’t the case. It also helped clinch Butler’s first conference regular season title since the mid-1990s.
The regular season title means that Butler will host the Horizon League Championship Tournament, which begins Friday.
“Playing at home will be a huge advantage,” senior Cara Burchett said. “Opponents don’t realize just how fast the turf is.”
The Bulldogs will have more than just familiarity on their side during the tournament.
St. John said she expects a large turnout from fans. Butler is on a roll, winning five of its last six games.
On average, the Bulldogs start seven freshmen and their youth was an obstacle early in the season.
“Because there are so few seniors, we really had to step up and be leaders,” Burchett said. “You have to take them under your wing and say, ‘This is how we do it here. These are the rules, the protocol.’”
After starting the season 2-7, the team found its footing and won all but three of its remaining matches.
“It’s been really exciting to see it all come together,” redshirt junior goalkeeper Olivia Walter said. “I will be leaving Butler soon, but this is a good team that I will be glad to say I was a part of.”
To put themselves in position to compete for the regular season championship, the Bulldogs first had to knock off the Penguins of Youngstown State Oct. 22.
Youngstown State got out to an early lead with a goal in the 14th minute by junior defender Kelsey Kempton.
However, freshman midfielder Olivia Colosimo scored off a set-piece play to even things out before the half.
The Penguins played an extremely conservative second half, during which their goalkeeper Ali Viola stalled the game for more than a minute by holding the ball in the goal box.
But sophomore defender Claire Milam clinched a Butler win when she scored in the 87th minute off a cross from sophomore midfielder Rachel Scott.
Sophomore forward Katie Griswold, Butler’s leading scorer this season, played a large role in Butler finishing the regular season atop the Horizon League. She finished the regular season tied for second in the conference in goals scored (nine) and fourth in points (20).
She also earned Horizon League Player of the Week honors twice this year.
“We would have a hard time generating goals without Griswold,” St. John said. “She does so many other things for us, but scoring goals is the most important thing she can do.”
The top six teams in the conference will compete in the Horizon League Championship Tournament, which will span the next two weeks.
Cleveland State will host Detroit Oct. 31. That same day, Loyola will travel to Wright State.
As the top seed, Butler will receive a first-round bye and will play in the tournament semifinals at the Butler Bowl Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m.