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WOMEN’S SOCCER Bridgeport to play for Div. II national title

December 1, 2018

It has been a nationally-elite program for more than a decade, advancing to the NCAA Tournament year after year while sitting on the cusp of a title.

On Saturday, the Bridgeport women’s soccer team ascends to another level.

The Purple Knights, making their 10th NCAA postseason appearance in 12 years, will play in the national title game for the first time. Coming off a semifinal victory over UC San Diego Thursday in Pittsburgh, Bridgeport (19-4-1) will face Grand Valley State (25-0-1) for the national championship (3 p.m.).

Under 20-year coach Magnus Nilerud, Bridgeport has been a Division II power. The first NCAA appearance came in 2007 and the first Final Four appearance in 2015, when the Knights were 21-2-1.

After a young roster missed the postseason last year, Bridgeport is rolling.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, what this group has done,” Nilerud said by phone from Pittsburgh Friday. “I think it’s a special group, regardless of what happens (Saturday). We want to see, can you be that group that goes the extra mile?”

Led by junior All-American Maegen Doyle (28 goals), the Purple Knights have steadily improved throughout the season. Coming off an 8-8-2 season with a roster that lost 10 players from the 2016 Elite Eight team, this year’s team has obvious talent and the coaching staff knew it would improve.

But how good could it be? Even the coach didn’t know.

“We don’t really lower our expectations,” Nilerud said. “We think that we’re going to compete for a national championship every year. Last year was almost a one off, as opposed to the other way around.

“But you never really know until you see the kids. We knew what we had coming in but until you see them, whether they click with each or not, the atmosphere, the character in the locker room … it’s so important. We spent a lot of time on that in preseason. This group, because they’re so tied together, they got some results out of it.”

There have been injuries all season and the team was challenged during an early-season trip through Michigan that results in two losses — including a 6-0 loss to Grand Valley State.

“When we lost both games, the group could have gone in a different direction and they didn’t,” Nilerud said.

The Purple Knights have won eight in a row and Nilerud said his team has been relaxed during the postseason, showing now signs of anxiety as the games grew more important. But the next task is daunting.

Bridgeport saw Grand Valley State at its best early in the season. The Lakers have won five national titles, including three in a row 2013-15. The program has been a national power over the past 10 years and this year’s team might be its best.

“They’re a fantastic team, one of the best Division II teams I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Nilerud said. “They really don’t have a weak link. Very, very athletic. Very fast going forward. Just a fantastic team.

“We’ve got our hands full, but we’ve got a plan and we’ve got players that can change the game at any given time. So we’re looking forward to it.”

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