HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Anxiety and excitement abounded as Northern Kentucky University’s women’s soccer players watched the Division I NCAA tournament Selection Show unfold Monday at BB&T Arena.
The Norse knew they were a lock in the 64-team bracket by virtue of their Horizon League Championship. But their opponent was a stomach-churning mystery.
NKU’s name finally flashed in the last pairing. Players erupted as the Norse (13-6-1, 6-2-1 Horizon League) were placed opposite No. 1-seed and top-ranked West Virginia (19-1-1, 8-0 Big 12) in a first-round match scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown.
The announcement was a long time coming.
“It’s just really exciting. It’s a good experience for us and I think that it will be a fun time,” said Jessica Frey, a junior forward. “It’s our first time going to the NCAA tournament.”
It’s the first time any NKU team has reached the Division I postseason. Following the university’s reclassification from Division II to Division I, the Norse’s 15 athletic programs could not compete in NCAA tournaments for four years.
NKU was granted Division I active status in August. Women’s soccer clinched its historic bid within four months.
“I think anytime a department moves from Division II to Division I, people who have supported it wonder: 'Can we be successful in the move to Division I?' And to be honest, frankly, it takes quite awhile usually for that to happen,” said NKU athletic director Ken Bothof.
“So to have this success in the first year we’ve been able to participate in postseason championships – I hope it’s just a recognition of the success we can continue to enjoy – as our program really does continue to grow into the Division I mentality.”
Bob Sheehan, the only head coach in program history, remembers its humble beginnings. Hired in 1997 by then-athletic director Jane Meier, he was given a 500-page NCAA manual and a folder containing a budget and a team schedule.
Sheehan was thrilled. He promptly made his first recruiting call and spent the summer compiling a list of 42 targets he hoped would attend the Norse’s try-out.
Only 17 players showed up.
“There was not a parade of cars coming into the parking lot, so we stretched. We didn’t even get the balls out of the bag. We called them all together and said, ‘Congratulations. This is the very first NKU women’s soccer team,’ ” Sheehan said.
Sheehan was so busy molding the start-up program that he didn’t dwell how it might evolve in two ensuing decades. In 1998 he guided NKU to the first of seven Great Lakes Valley Conference titles and a NCAA Division II national semifinal berth in 1999.
The 2000 edition of the Norse ascended to the Division II national championship before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to UC San Diego via a goal in the final 45 seconds.
NKU women’s soccer’s last Division II NCAA tournament was in 2011.
Although the reclassification process was at times daunting for those who arrived in the midst of it, midfielder Katelyn Newton found motivation in the knowledge that NKU could compete for a postseason bid her senior season.
“We knew that this day would come,” Newton said. “This four-year process has just been building up to this point. To be able to get a bid the first year possible is a testament to all the hard work we’ve put in.”
NKU lost to Appalachian State, Cincinnati, and Eastern Kentucky to start the season but turned the corner in Game 7 at Vanderbilt. Sheehan underscored the idea that moral victories were unacceptable. The team, simply put, was “there to win.”
Frey’s golden goal in the 103rd minute ensured NKU’s 1-0, the double-overtime defeat of the Commodores.
Propelled by chemistry, talent and resilience, NKU navigated its way to Saturday’s Horizon League Championship. The Norse erased a two-goal deficit with help from two-time defending Horizon League player of the year Macy Hamblin and rallied for a 3-2 victory over top-seeded Milwaukee.
Freshman Shawna Zaken scored the go-ahead goal in the 88th minute. NKU players went bonkers when the match ended soon after.
“What was fun was the sheer joy players had on their faces,” Sheehan said. “It was really pretty special.”
Newton said the eight-hour bus ride home was equally joyful, and she couldn’t stop smiling while watching the Selection Show. The particulars of West Virginia and its 12-match winning streak were no match for the celebratory atmosphere.
Regardless of what happens next, Newton said the team will always be proud of securing the first Division I NCAA tournament bid in NKU annals.
“We made history,” Newton said. “We’ll be talking about this forever.”