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Return trip to Final Four wasn't easy
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/3/2008 1:54 PM

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It's hard for Erin Hodina to describe how Wheaton College turned its women's soccer season around.

It was after a senior day loss, one of the few defeats the senior from Wheaton Academy has experienced in four years with the Thunder, which explains why the players were so disoriented.

"Everybody was pretty upset," Hodina remembered. "We were all kind of floundering."

Maybe it was talking things over at a dinner for the seniors the night of the loss, or when the coaches kicked a few players out of practice the next day. Somebody stirred things up somehow, and it was just what the two-time defending national champion Thunder (21-3-2) needed.

"We decided it was time to start playing for each other and we had lost focus," Hodina said.

The Thunder found that focus in time for the postseason, and this weekend the team will be back in familiar territory: the NCAA Division III Final Four.

How the Thunder earned the trip to Greensboro, N.C., well, that wasn't very familiar at all.

First came the off-season cancer diagnosis to Shannon Wilkes, who played last year as a freshman. She couldn't try out for the team this year and eventually left school to fight her cancer.

"It's just a shock," coach Pete Felske said. "We're all working through it and praying for Shannon. We'll see what happens."

Then there were all the other injuries. Freshman midfielder Jaime Orewiler, from Wheaton North, tore an ACL, and there went a starter. Rebecca Oliver, a key reserve, broke her leg and was lost for the season. Jami Herrmann chipped a bone in her elbow but can play in a cast, though she doesn't practice much.

Other players have missed time to relatively minor injuries.

"It's been a little rockier than in the past," Felske said. "This year's a little different.

"The road's just been a lot tougher this year, both on the field and off. But the kids have responded great. They're playing well and they feel good about it. It shows the mettle that our players have. They're strong kids, and it's very satisfying when you have to work even harder to get something."

It won't get any easier Friday when the Thunder meets undefeated Williams College, the top-ranked team in the nation. The Thunder doesn't know much about the team from Massachusetts, but Felske has heard Williams is athletic and experienced with eight or nine seniors in the lineup.

"I'm anticipating a very wide-open game, lots of scoring opportunities," he said.

That's a little different than how the Thunder won its last two national titles, relying on defense, but that's OK. Either way, now the players feel like they're ready for anything.

"They're all that's on our mind now," Hodina said.