At the start of every year, Pacific Lutheran University women’s soccer coach Seth Spidahl chooses a one-word theme for his players to focus on.
On Jan. 1, he posted that word for 2016.
It was an obvious one: Finish.
And this fall, the Lutes certainly proved they were ready to do that.
After late-season collapses the past two seasons, PLU finally sewed up the Northwest Conference crown and secured its first NCAA Division III national tournament berth in school history.
The Lutes accomplished that in dramatic fashion, too. In defeating Puget Sound, 2-0, to clinch the league title, they also ended the Loggers’ 14-year stranglehold over the NWC.
“The maturity level with this group, and the focus and purpose, I noticed a difference this year,” Spidahl said.
Spidahl was startled by one thing as the team met in a corner of the field after that title-clinching match. He was surprised his players were not more overjoyed about being the first PLU group to go to a national tournament in 24 years.
“We were excited,” PLU striker Machaela Graddy said. “But we wanted to wait until the regular season was done to celebrate. Up until that point, it was all business.”
Speaking of finishing, Graddy — the NWC’s offensive player of the year — knows that feeling as well as any goal-scorer in the conference.
The Eatonville product led the NWC with 13 goals, including a league-high six game-winning scores. Her eight assists were seconds in the conference behind teammate Lena Moreno’s nine.
But early on, a lot of players were scoring for the Lutes. Graddy was one of them, she just was not doing it in bunches.
“I felt off,” she said. “But it didn’t stop me from playing a role in the goals we did score.”
Spidahl sensed his forward was getting frustrated, and he held a private meeting with his standout junior, explaining that “it’s a failure position — you are going to miss more shots than you make.”
Finally, it all clicked in a match at Whitworth in mid-October. She tallied both goals in a 2-0 win over the Pirates.
“I felt like myself again,” Graddy said.
And she kept it up, scoring at least one goal in eight of the Lutes’ final nine matches, including a hat-trick effort against Lewis & Clark.
Graddy has 29 career goals heading into the postseason. She lurks just outside the school’s top-10 list with one season remaining.
“She hit her form at the right time,” Spidahl said.
NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer Tournament
First round Friday at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Claremont, California
Game 1: Pomona-Pitzer (14-1-3) vs. UC Santa Cruz (6-10-1), 11 a.m.
Game 2: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (16-5-1) vs. Pacific Lutheran (16-0-4), 1:30 p.m.
Winners will play in round of 32 at 1 p.m. Saturday