Defense holds up, offense unable to capitalize as Ball State leaves Akron with a scoreless draw

Junior forward Evie Stepaniak attempts to move the ball down the field in the game against Northern Illinois on Oct. 8 at the Briner Sports Complex. Breanna Daugherty, DN File
Junior forward Evie Stepaniak attempts to move the ball down the field in the game against Northern Illinois on Oct. 8 at the Briner Sports Complex. Breanna Daugherty, DN File

The Ball State defense held strong for 110 minutes, recording five saves, including a key stop in the 68th minute when junior defender Evie Stepaniak stepped into the 6-yard box to head out a sure goal after senior goalkeeper Alyssa Heintschel had been beaten on the play to cap off a scoreless draw at Akron Sunday.

Akron didn’t look like a team that had only two wins entering the game, as its offense was able to pressure the Ball State backline early in the first half. 

In the third minute, Heintschel found herself up against sophomore Ashley Amato, who had slipped past the right side of the Ball State defense. Amato got a shot away but Heintschel made a sliding save and the ball deflected off her leg and out of the dangerous position.

“Alyssa came up with some very good saves, especially early in the first half,” head coach Craig Roberts said. “I don’t think it was a performance defensively that was one of their best this season, they still have to improve one or two things that I think could be better.”

Ball State found itself with an opportunity to counter in the fifth minute. Junior defender Evie Stepaniak delivered a well-placed ball into the right side of the 18-yard box from just past midfield on the left side. Junior midfielder Lauren Roll was on the receiving end of the pass, but her header sailed high for a goal kick.

“We have to be strong-minded in going to goal and finishing,” Roberts said. “There was a desire to score but not a commitment to score, and I think the mindset has to be changed a little bit. They have to drive and want to finish, whereas I think they drove to the goal and just shot, and they have to have the mentality to finish. That’ll be something we’ll have to address going into the tournament.”

One minute after freshman midfielder Nicky Potts sent a low shot inside the box into the arms of Akron goalkeeper Amani Jiu, Akron attempted to generate a scoring opportunity of its own in the 17th minute. Amato once again found herself in a good position as she got a clean look at the net, but Heintschel made a diving save to keep the game scoreless.

Ball State’s best scoring chance of the game came in the 34th minute. Junior midfielder Alessandra Fistrovich stepped to the ball and won possession near midfield with a well-timed tackle and passed the ball to sophomore forward Sam Kambol, who beat the Akron defense but was unable to get her shot past Jiu as she made a sliding save to keep the ball out of the net.

Three minutes later, Akron found itself with the last dangerous scoring opportunity of the first half. Junior forward Rachel Baughman received a deep ball into the Ball State defensive third, she beat the backline and chipped a shot past Heintschel, but it sailed over the crossbar and out for a goal kick.

The first potentially dangerous scoring chance of the second half for Ball State came in the 53rd minute, but it turned out to be a missed opportunity. 

Akron had their first chance of the second half in the 63rd minute. Junior forward Raechel Eck received a deep ball into the box after senior defender Sam Mattlin slipped, she fired a shot toward the goal but Heintschel was there for another sliding save to keep the game scoreless.

Five minutes later, Stephaniak made the save of the game with her head as she knocked an Amato shot away from the net after Heintschel was beaten.

“That chance was an important defensive play by Evie,” Roberts said. “But at the same time we got in and created a number of opportunities that were equally threatening at a greater percentage. For us it wasn’t about how big of a deal that situation was, it was about how we weren’t able to convert our chances.”

Lauren Roll had the final chance of regulation, heading a ball into the arms of Jiu after Paula Guerrero send a deep pass into the box in the 76th minute.

The Cardinals came within inches of winning the game in the 99th minute. Lucy Walton received a pass in the left side of the box, placed a shot toward the goal that hit the crossbar and went out of play for a goal kick.

Ball State had plenty of chances throughout the game, ending with a 20-7 shot advantage, placing seven shots on goal. Heintschel finished the day with four saves.

“The bottom line is we kept a shutout, so the goalkeeping and the defenders get credit for that,” Roberts said. “On the other end we have to make sure that we’re committed to finishing.”

Having already become the first team to win three consecutive Mid-American Conference division championships, Ball State (9-6-3, 7-1-2 MAC) was looking to regain the top spot in the overall MAC standings Sunday. Instead, they end the day one point behind Kent State, who was beaten by Bowling Green Sunday.

“Kent lost today, so if we would’ve won the game today we would’ve taken first place, but the bottom line is that it’s that tight in the MAC,” Roberts said. “Akron played hard today but we should’ve converted and gotten the job done but we didn’t, now it goes down to the last game.”

Ball State will travel to Miami to play its final regular season game Thursday. That game will have a 3 p.m. kickoff.

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