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The Emporia State women’s soccer team huddles up on Sunday after defeating Nebraska-Kearney, 1-0, in overtime. The Hornets are the 3-seed in the MIAA Tournament and will host Northwest Missouri at 2 p.m. Friday.

One year ago at this time, the Emporia State women’s soccer team was preparing for a number of program firsts, including hosting a postseason game.

Now the novelty itself may have tempered ever so slightly, but the expectation of the week’s outcome hasn’t as the Hornets are getting ready for the first round of the MIAA postseason tournament, which will take place on the ESU pitch at 2 p.m. Friday.

“I think we take the same mentality that we’ve had for ... probably the whole season,” senior midfielder Tanna Benefiel said. “We’re focused, we’re ready, but we know that it counts a little bit more this time. I think from beginning (to) now, the intensity has slowly progressed and we’re reaching the height of our season, so we’d really like to peak and keep our intensity growing as the season continues.”

The 12 victories thus far are second in program history only to last year’s total of 14. ESU has scored at a steady clip, thanks in no small part to the record-setting performance of freshman Mackenzie DiMarco, who has a single-season best mark of 18 on the year, which is also tied for the third-highest mark in MIAA history.

Oft overlooked, however, is the strength of the Hornet defense, which has held opposing teams scoreless in seven games this year.

“We’re playing our best defense (right now), for sure,” ESU Head Coach Bryan Sailer said. “We probably were scoring goals at a higher rate earlier in the year ... but that kind of comes and goes. We have some chances early (in games), we’re just not finishing. I feel we’re playing our best defensively and whenever a challenge arises, we seem to step up.”

That next challenge is to take another step forward as a program. Last year, emerging with a record win total and reaching the NCAA Tournament was one step, though ESU was brushed aside in the MIAA Tournament semifinals by Central Missouri. This year, a second tournament win would not only increase the likelihood of a potential repeat of a regional berth, but could posture the Hornets even more.

“One of our goals was to win the MIAA Tournament,” Sailer said. “That’s something we’ve never done, (or) even made it to a final. It’s about growth in a program. Our program has seen success in the regular season, now two years in a row. Last year we made it to the semis and lost. We’re trying to take another step and that would be getting to a final hopefully. That’s what we’re striving for.”

“We’ve got to go out with something to prove. This is what you play for, the postseason.”

ESU lost four seniors from last year’s group but imported a group of freshman that has provided a boost up front and in the center of the field. In addition to DiMarco, Hannah Woolery leads the team in assists and has scored a pair of goals herself. Joanie Westcoat and Ella Woermann have also gotten regular minutes in helping create plenty of quality depth amongst the midfield and back-line defensive unit.

“They’ve definitely stepped up,” sophomore keeper Jillian Patton said of the freshman class. “Obviously our front line, we’ve had a lot of impact up there and defensively in the middle. They’ve definitely helped us get here.”

With the infusion of younger players, including a deep sophomore class that provided a spark last season, the journey has been a recurring tale of enjoying more than just wins and losses, but the game itself.

“We love to say “we love soccer,”” Benefield said. “I think it’s a good thing. We just want to remind each other all the time that yeah, it’s more intense, it’s more pressure, it’s higher stakes, but it’s still the game that we love and we love to have fun and we’re playing together as a team. Now we’re in the season that you don’t know when it’s going to end, so you have to keep winning to keep playing. I think it gives it that much more meaning.

ESU (12-4-2) returns to the MIAA Tournament as the third seed and will host sixth-seeded Northwest Missouri (6-9-3). In their earlier meeting this year, the Hornets dispatched the Bearcats with a 4-0 victory.

“They’ve definitely figured some things out,” Benefiel said of NWMSU. “They’ve gotten better, they just came off a really good win against Missouri Southern. They probably have some confidence from that one. Our mentality needs to be focused and dialed in to get ready for a competitive game.”

The Hornets enter coming off a pair of 1-0 victories over the weekend, having won 16 games at home since the last loss suffered there.

“We always play our best at home and we love playing in front of our fans here,” Patton said. “It definitely helps having them cheer us on.”

As for the overall outcome, the MIAA has a number of teams that has shown themselves to be proven contenders in recent years. The Hornets know they’re now in the conversation, but if the Hornets’ best has yet to come, they hope to be the focal point.

“We could make a run,” Sailer said. “We know in this game there’s a number of teams that can win this thing and we’re one of them.”

Kickoff for the first round of the 2019 MIAA Soccer Tournament is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the ESU Pitch.

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