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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 10, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 11
Women's Soccer on Historic Run

At the last game of the regular season, sophomore Allie Zazzali, a midfielder, dribbles past defenders from Ursinus College. The Blue Jays would win 4-0.
Photo by Jay VanRensselaer / HIPS

Capping off an unbeaten season, the Blue Jays eye NCAA tournament

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

On senior night for the Johns Hopkins women's soccer team, a duo of sophomores produced an ESPN top-10 play moment.

In the 71st minute of the Blue Jays' game versus Ursinus College, fullback Rhiannon Desideri juked past several Bears defenders to create space for herself on the right flank. She then blasted a Beckham-esque cross into the box that curled over a pack of players and into the waiting path of midfielder Allie Zazzali. With peerless timing and form, Zazzali launched off her feet and headed the ball into the back of the net. The Ursinus goalkeeper didn't have time to flinch.

The goal, Zazzali's second of the night, made it 4-0, firmly cementing the win and assuring the Blue Jays of their first unbeaten season in team history. The team finished the regular season 15-0-3 and with a perfect 10-0 record against Centennial Conference opponents.

Head Coach Leo Weil said he couldn't have drawn up a better exclamation point to cap the historic run.

"That was a great goal on any level," Weil said. "It was impressive."

Just as impressive has been the team's form all season. With the win against Ursinus, Johns Hopkins claimed its 13th shutout of the season and extended its unbeaten streak at home to 14 games, a run that dates back to Oct. 1, 2007.

The Blue Jays headed into last weekend's Centennial Conference Women's Soccer Tournament, which it hosted for the third consecutive year, ranked No. 7 in the nation.

Speaking before the tournament, Weil said he was confident that even with a loss over the weekend, Johns Hopkins had done enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which now has a 60-team field.

An at-large bid, however, would not be his first choice.

"We'd rather get in through the front door and not the back," Weil said. "We want to be as high a seed as possible and host a few rounds of the NCAAs [at Homewood Field]. Quite honestly, we want to be conference champions."

In the team's history, Johns Hopkins has won six conference championships but never gotten past the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Weil, who was named Centennial Conference Coach of the Year last week, said it's been the team's depth and chemistry that have been the keys to success this season, and the reason for optimism going forward.

Five members of the team recently earned All-Centennial Conference honors: freshman Erica Suter, the team's leading scorer with 10 goals; sophomores Jenn Paulucci and Sarah Gieszl; junior Karen Guszkowski; and senior Molly Steele. Suter and Paulucci earned first-team honors; Steele, Gieszl and Guszkowski received second-team nods.

Paulucci, a gifted athlete who plays the fullback position, also earned ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District Second Team accolades. The Manalapan, N.J., native and biomedical engineering major sports a 4.0 GPA.

"Jenn is fantastic," Weil said. "She is great at everything. She is so composed out there. She rarely gets beaten. Any coach that watches us tells me she stands out. She's probably been our best player these past two years."

Weil has helmed the women's soccer program at Johns Hopkins since it began in 1992. He boasts an impressive 206-83-26 (.695) career record, including two 18-win seasons. Under his leadership, Hopkins has made 11 consecutive postseason appearances and has advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament twice. Before joining Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland graduate coached from the youth club level through the high school and college ranks.

Weil said he knew going into this season that the team looked good on paper and could be his best squad ever, even though they had some adapting to do.

The Blue Jays had to blend in 12 new players out of a squad of 28. Weil said it took a while to figure out the best lineup and formation, eventually settling into an unconventional 4-3-2-1 formation.

The team also had a new assistant coach, Tim Wittman, a former Baltimore Blast player and coach.

During his professional soccer career, Wittman was a three-time Major Indoor Soccer League all-star and the Blast's most valuable player in the 1987-88 season. He was an assistant coach for the Blast's 2003 MISL championship team and the head coach of the organization when it won its third MISL title in 2004.

Wittman, who said he is enjoying every minute in his new role, admits that he did have his doubts about how he would adapt to the women's game.

"I knew that coaching is coaching and this was just another challenge, but my one concern was [whether] these young women wanted to play at a really high level," he said. "But when I talked to them during the interview process, I had my answer right away. They showed me from day one their desire to learn and the want to win. That was all I needed to hear."

On and off the field, Weil and Wittman are near polar opposites. Weil is subdued and analytical, looking more the part of a history professor. On the sideline, Weil quietly surveys the action, often with hands in pockets.

Wittman, on the other hand, is frenetic. His body undulates to the flow of the play, and he seemingly never stops moving, or talking. He's quick to compliment the players or react like a fan.

Jane O'Connor, a senior who has become a bedrock of the team's defense, said that the players have been feeding off Wittman's enthusiasm.

"He gets excited, and we hear all his compliments and want to hear more," O'Connor said. "I've had three assistant coaches, each with his own style. Tim's very supportive and gives instant feedback. It's been great."

O'Connor, who is easy to spot on the pitch with her bright-red cleats, said that goals like Zazzali's are a sign of the team's increased confidence and ability.

"We do things like that now, and it's fun to watch, but it's become our style and what is expected of us," she said.

As for the team's undefeated season, O'Connor said that the goal was never emphasized, but the players certainly appreciate the feat.

"We all looked around after the game and said, Do you realize what we just did?" she said. "It's a great accomplishment and a product of all the hard work we've put in."

The team's work, however, is not done.

"That was just the first chapter," she said. "Our focus now is on the playoffs and how far we can take this."

Weil said the aim is to get past the second round of the NCAAs, which start later this month, and then see how far they can ride this wave.

"We'll need a little luck along the way," he said. "We have had some close calls this year. It takes a little bit of luck to keep winning like this. But I wouldn't consider us just a lucky team; we have our fair share of ability, too."

To keep up on the team's postseason play, go to:


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