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No. 2 Johns Hopkins women’s soccer eager to prove it belongs against No. 1 The College of New Jersey in Division III showdown

Tuesdays tend to be distracting for members of the Johns Hopkins women’s soccer team.

Those are the days when the United Soccer Coaches’ Division III poll is updated, and since Sept. 21, the Blue Jays have occupied the No. 2 ranking. Senior forward Rachel Jackson admitted that she and her teammates are eager to be the first to find the latest version of the poll.

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“When the rankings come out every week, we’re always refreshing the website all day, and we immediately put it in the group chat and post it on Instagram,” she said, adding that even senior center back Laurel Buck, who left for Italy after the fifth game to the season as part of the university’s School of Advanced International Studies, was the first one to inform her teammates of the poll last week. “So, we’re very happy with being No. 2, but we’d be even happier with being No. 1.”

Graduate student and center back Bonnie Shea and the Johns Hopkins women's soccer team is ranked No. 2 in the country in Division III.
Graduate student and center back Bonnie Shea and the Johns Hopkins women's soccer team is ranked No. 2 in the country in Division III. (JAMES T VANRENSSELAER/Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

Jackson’s wish may prove visionary if the Blue Jays (10-0-1) can pull off an upset of top-ranked The College of New Jersey (13-0), which will visit Homewood Field in Baltimore on Wednesday at 4 p.m. The Lions have won 12 games by two goals or more, but senior goalkeeper Caitlin Hendricks vowed Johns Hopkins won’t be intimidated.

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“We’ve worked really hard to where we are right now, but playing the No. 1 team in the country, they’re only No. 1 because we haven’t played them yet,” she said. “It’s a great place for us to be, and we’re not afraid of that number.”

Coach Dan Weiler may not be as vocal as Hendricks, but he acknowledged the significance of Wednesday’s game for a program that has never owned the top ranking.

“The intent was to have a really great matchup, and it just so happens that they’ve been No. 1 the whole year, and we’ve been No. 2,” he said. “So it’s pretty fun that it’s kind of come down to this. But I feel the same way. We’re doing really good things, and we’re really excited.”

TCNJ will not be the first No. 1 opponent the Blue Jays have faced this fall. They welcomed then-No. 1 Messiah to Homewood on Sept. 8 and got a goal from Jackson with 12:47 left in regulation to finish in a 1-1 draw.

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“I think in the first half, we came out a little scared,” said graduate student center back Bonnie Shea, a transfer from Division I Dartmouth. “And in the second half, we played much better. I think it really gave us the confidence that we could hang with some of the top teams in our division. That was really exciting for us, and we learned a lot from that game.”

Learning has been the overarching theme this season for the players and Weiler, who is in his first competitive year as the coach. Although the 2020 campaign was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, Weiler used last spring to make changes.

His biggest one was switching from a strategic plan of skipping the ball forward to create chances to emphasizing ball possession and quick touches. That in turn has led to scoring more goals during run-of-play rather than relying on set pieces.

Johns Hopkins senior forward Rachel Jackson said Wednesday's game against No. 1 TCJN is "a really big deal."
Johns Hopkins senior forward Rachel Jackson said Wednesday's game against No. 1 TCJN is "a really big deal." (James T VanRensselaer/Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

“I think that everyone is really open to the new changes,” said Jackson, who leads the offense in assists (five) and ranks second in points (13). “We as a team talked a lot during the coaching transition about coming in with an open mind and not pushing back because we wanted Dan to be here with us.”

Weiler said he has grown to appreciate the players’ receptiveness to his ideas and data-driven approach. After all, the program had gone 410-121-43 in 28 years under Leo Weil, captured 12 Centennial Conference championships in 19 postseason appearances, and advanced to seven NCAA tournament quarterfinals and one Final Four.

“They were really successful previously with that style, and it’s not that you can’t be,” Weiler said. “I just felt that with the teams I had coached, part of the recipe is to keep the ball more. So that was my motivation right away, and they were really open and willing to listen to that.

“Undoubtedly, there are growing pains anytime you start to change what they did, but we have metrics we use to help them along with that and certainly all of our training reinforces all of those things. So I think we’re still in transition with that to a degree, but we’ve definitely come a long way.”

Jackson did not shy away from the notion of sending a statement to the rest of the country if the team can produce a positive result against the Lions.

“This is the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country playing, so it’s a really big deal,” she said. “This says a lot for our program and how we’ve been developing during the year. I’m sure there will be a lot of people wondering how the game is going to turn out. So I think it says a lot for our program and where we’re going to go for the rest of the season.”

Weiler said there is only one outcome that will satisfy the Blue Jays, who are 6-0-1 at Homewood so far.

“I think we’re going into the game to win it,” he said.

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