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Apr. 17—BOWLING GREEN — The stingy Bowling Green State University women’s soccer team has employed a defense-first philosophy that has landed the Falcons in the Mid-American Conference title game.

For the third consecutive season, the BG women have earned a spot in the MAC tournament title game. The Falcons (5-1-0), who have registered five shutouts in their six matches this season, host Ball State (6-2-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cochrane Stadium.

Bowling Green has outscored its opponents 15-2, including by a 10-0 margin in the past three games.

“We emphasize defense,” first-year coach Jimmy Walker said. “We want to be really difficult to beat defensively. We like to keep possession of the ball a lot. Our entire team defends well. If we keep possession of the ball, the other team doesn’t have it.”

The Falcons are ranked No. 2 in the country in shutouts with five. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Lili Berg, who is a native of New Berlin, Wis., has a miniscule 0.35 goals-against average. Berg has allowed only two goals in more than 514 minutes.

“She’s a really good goalkeeper,” Walker said. “We’ve really done a nice job of defending and making ourselves difficult to beat. And the results of that have been five shutouts.”

Walker, who was an assistant coach on BG’s coaching staff in the 2011 season, has carried his defensive philosophy over from his stint as the head coach at the University of Findlay. In his two years at the helm, Walker guided the Oilers to an overall record of 25-7-4 and the program’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II national tournament.

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“My philosophy has always been to be tough to beat defensively,” said Walker, who also was the executive director of coaching at Pacesetter Soccer Club in Sylvania.

Walker also has head-coaching experience at both Duquesne and Tiffin University, his alma mater where he was a forward for the Dragons. He said the defense-first philosophy extends throughout every area of the pitch.

“It’s been a bit of everything,” Walker said. “Our defending starts with our forwards up front and at midfield. If we defend well there, it doesn’t get to the backline. So it’s not just any one person. But our back four has defended well, also. The whole team makes sure we put an emphasis on defending well one-v-one.”

At the other end, the Falcons also have scored their fair share of goals. BG is outscoring its foes 2.5 goals per game to 0.33.

Forwards Madi Wolfbauer and Nikki Cox both earned All-MAC first-team honors.

Wolfbauer, a redshirt junior and native of Canton, Mich., leads BG in scoring with five goals and 10 points. All five goals have come over the past three contests, and she is the first BG player with back-to-back multiple-goal games in more than a decade. Wolfbauer sat out the 2019 season due to injury after transferring from the University of Illinois.

Cox, a senior and native of Granville, Ohio, ranks fourth on the team in scoring with four points in five games. She leads the Falcons in total shot attempts (29) and shots on goal (12). Cox has averaged nearly a point per game in her career, with 46 points in 50 contests.

“We’ve created a lot of quality chances this season,” Walker said. “We have some dynamic forwards and a good midfield. We have some good players who do a really nice job.”

Wolfbauer and Cox are among five Falcons who earned All-MAC honors. Berg and sophomores Jasmijn Dijsselhof and Audrey Shea all earned all-league second-team honors.

Sophomore forward Kennedy White ranks second on the team in goals scored (5) and points (7).

“We’re really pleased with the way we are defending all throughout the lineup,” Walker said. “We have some really good players, and they are fun to coach. They work very hard and are very competitive.”

Berg has kept three clean sheets and played more than 70 minutes in two other shutout wins. She is in her first season with the Falcons after transferring from Ohio State.

“She is very good,” Walker said. “She transferred in from Ohio State where she had not been playing very much. So I think it’s been refreshing for her to be playing again.”

The Falcons had their final four regular-season games canceled due to coronavirus contact-tracing protocols. They have not played since March 28, a 3-0 shutout at Ohio.

“We were put on pause for a little bit,” Walker said. “But having that break toward the end of the season … might refresh them a little bit. Hopefully, they’ll come back hungry. We might be a little rusty to start, but we’ll find our way into the game. We’ve trained well all week. We’ve played a lot of 11 v 11. We feel we will be ready to go.”

Fellow MAC East member Buffalo (6-1-1 for a .813 winning percentage) believes it deserves the opportunity to play for the MAC title after handing BG its lone loss (2-1 on March 14). But the Falcons meet the league’s six-game requirement to play for the league championship and have the best winning percentage in the East (.833). The teams were scheduled to play the Falcons again on April 4, but the match was canceled.

The MAC women’s soccer season shifted from its normal fall schedule to the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ball State was picked to win the MAC West and BG was picked to win the East.

“It’s the two top teams,” Walker said. “It will be a tough game.”

Since 1997, the BG women’s program has made seven appearances in the MAC tournament title game. The Falcons won titles in 2004, 2005, 2018, and 2019. The Falcons have an all-time record of 17-7-7 in the MAC tournament.

Saturday night’s game is a rematch of the 2018 MAC tournament title game at Cochrane Stadium when the Falcons and Cardinals played to a 1-1 draw in regulation before BG advanced past the Cardinals via penalty kicks.

“It’s going to come down to making a play and making sure we do the right things in individual battles,” Walker said. “It will be a really good game. If we come to play, we will be dangerous defensively and we should be tough to beat.”

On Nov. 10, 2019, the Falcons captured the MAC tournament title for the second consecutive year with a win over Eastern Michigan University via penalty kicks. That Falcons team went 14-6-3 and lost to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“No MAC team has won both the regular-season and the conference tournament three years in a row. So we could potentially be the first team to do that. We’re playing for a lot [Saturday],” Walker said.

Walker credited the previous coaching staffs for bringing in great players and building a winning culture.

“They did a great job and I’m trying to continue it. We just want to keep it going,” he said. “It’s been fun. We have a sensational group of women that work really hard.”

Saturday’s game is open to the general public with fans required to be at least six feet apart and wear a face covering at all times.

The winner of Saturday’s match earns the MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“The goal is to get in the national tournament. We’re playing to get in among the best,” Walker said “We want to keep going. We’re not ready to be done this year.”

First Published April 16, 2021, 6:45pm

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