For 90 minutes, the Southwestern University Pirates women's soccer team stayed within striking distance of the only tournament champion the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) has ever known.
By the end of the Pirates' 1-0 loss to the Trinity University Tigers in the championship match, Southwestern had a clearer understanding of how far they had come and the gap they must still close.
"They outshot us but we weren't in a game where we were holding on for dear life," Head Coach Linda Hamilton said. "We were competitive."
For most of the season, the Pirates were more than that, putting together their best season record-wise in 10 years. Their record of 11-6 and 8-3 in conference play was the best the Pirates have done since the 2008 iteration, which went 13-4-1 (.750 winning percentage) and 6-3 in conference.
After a down 3-12-2 season in 2017, the Pirates returned to the conference tournament, earning the second seed and making it to the championship match for the second time in Coach Hamilton's four years of running the program.
"It was a great season. With 15 returners and 15 newcomers, we knew we were going to be young and need a lot of growth," Hamilton said. "I was impressed with how we progressed each week, especially with five or six new players starting every match."
The Pirates were buoyed by the talents of goalie Mary Cardone early, shutting teams down with the highest save percentage in the SCAC while her younger teammates found their footing.
"I think Mary provides so much leadership in addition to being one of the best goalkeepers in Division III," Hamilton said. "To have someone with her experience, talent, and ability is really inspiring. It's easy for her teammates to play hard for a player like her."
With six saves against Trinity in the championship match, Cardone was named to the SCAC All-Tournament Team along with teammates Kierstyn Luckock and Hallie Rutherford, adding to a season in which she earned All-SCAC First Team and the SCAC Women's Soccer Elite 19 Award for her 3.85 GPA and All-SCAC honors.
"She embodies the consummate student-athlete," Hamilton said. "She's shown you can do it all from being a great student to a great role model in the classroom and on the field.
"Showing that kind of determination and balance to accomplish so many great things is impressive and she handles it all with such grace. It's a pleasure to be part of her college career."
Luckock was a revelation this season, earning her first ever all-conference honors. With faster players flanking her, her technical abilities were brought into focus, helping to direct the Pirates' attack and even scoring the game-winning goal on senior night.
"She's a special player who does something pretty unique with her ability to hold the ball," Hamilton said. "I'm really going to miss her and my two other seniors, Marissa and Emily. I haven't coached a team without her."
Those three helped to form the Pirates' identity this season, guiding Southwestern to 10 shutouts in their 11 wins; highlighted by a four-match winning streak at the end of September.
"Romie and Mallory, with Mary behind them, are a force to be reckoned with," Hamilton said. "I think they're the best center back combination in the conference and they complement each other so well.
"Mallory is great in the air and has the ability to get forward and Romie is so solid and smart and gets into defensive shape early. Having that talent at center back with a fantastic goalkeeper behind them is going to set us up for next year."
For all the Pirates accomplished this season, the youth of the program was the theme, with first-year Hallie Rutherford leading the team in scoring with six goals to earn Second Team All-SCAC and sophomore Maya Fuller getting Honorable Mention with four goals. First-year Hanna Sanderson also received Honorable Mention.
The youth is in good hands with Hamilton, who was recognized by the conference as the Co-Coach of the Year along with Trinity's Dylan Harrison.
"It's an honor to be selected by my peers," Hamilton said. "Honestly, it's mostly indicative of my support staff and a reflection of the improvements the team made. I feel grateful to be the leader of such quality people.
"The team really solidified as a defensive force. We've set the pieces up and if we can continue to take what we did, work hard, and add to it, we can continue to make an impact in conference and maybe get a chance on a national level."