Rita Craven leads Valparaiso women's soccer with honors

“Completely off-guard,” was Valparaiso University midfielder Rita Craven’s succinct response when asked if she expected to find herself on the 2015 MAC Hermann Trophy watch list. The trophy is awarded annually to the nation’s top Division I women’s and men’s soccer players. Twenty-eight players were named to the women’s watch list this year, and only 10 were midfielders.

Past recipients of the sport’s highest individual honor include current U.S. team members Morgan Brian (2013, 2014), Christen Press (2010), and Kelley O’ Hara (2009). 2012 winner Crystal Dunn appeared on the U.S. roster earlier this year.

Crowning the list of past MAC Hermann winners is Mia Hamm, regarded as the best in U.S. women’s soccer history. Hamm won the trophy in 1992 and 1993 at North Carolina.

“I have to deflect it back to my team; they make me look good. They’re a great group of people to play alongside. It’s thanks to them all that I get any awards, in all honesty,” said Craven.

Craven is the first player in Valpo’s history named to the watch list. It’s the latest in a running series of firsts for the senior from Frankfort, Ill. In 2014, she was named a third-team All-American, becoming the school’s first women’s soccer player to garner All-American recognition. She was also chosen as the Horizon League’s Player of the Year and the League’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Those efforts helped the Crusaders run the table with a perfect conference mark (8-0), their first Horizon League championship, and an NCAA Tournament bid. Their 14 wins, as part of an overall 14-2-4 record, were another school best.

Leading the way from midfield, Craven found the back of the net five times and added three assists in 2014. Four of her tallies were game-winners.

“I wouldn’t say necessarily that a game-winning goal is harder than the first goal or another goal. It’s really just trying to score,” said Craven.

Crusaders’ head coach John Marovich momentarily detours Craven’s modesty, speaking to her steady on-field temperament and adding a fuller description of one match-deciding goal.

“Rita had one at UIC (University of Illinois-Chicago) toward the end of the game that was just a great individual performance. She beat a couple of players and had a great look and hit one from about 25 yards out. I thought that was just an absolutely spectacular goal,” said Marovich.

Marovich added that it was an atypical goal for her, as more often Craven works to the open position — prior to possessing the ball — before putting home the score.

Both Marovich and Craven spoke to the selflessness of the 2014 team that aided their success. It was essential in the Horizon League semifinals in topping Green Bay, 2-0, and again in a 1-0 win over Detroit to clinch the Horizon title and the NCAA bid. Marovich was able to field his top team, without hindering deference to prior playing time or depth chart status.

The Crusaders are considered the  favorite in the league again this year. In addition to Craven, they return their top scorer, junior April Cronin. A forward from Glenview, Ill., Cronin had nine goals and 20 points in 2014. Her game-winning goals against both Green Bay and Detroit earned her Horizon League Championship MVP honors, adding to first-team all-tournament and All-Horizon League selections.

“We’re in a completely different position than we’ve been in the past. Now the target’s on us,” Craven said.

The Crusaders’ 2014 season-ending game was a 1-0 loss on a 90th-minute goal by Notre Dame in the first-round of the NCAA tournament. The Irish then advanced to the third round of the tournament, falling to Texas A&M, 2-1. They finished 14-6-2 and ranked No. 13 in the nation.

They meet again Friday when unranked Valpo plays at eighth-ranked Notre Dame in the season-opener for both teams.

“I know a lot of people are still feeling it from last year with us barely losing to them in the NCAA Tournament," Craven said. "We’re picking up where we left off and will show them who we are again."

Above: Rita Craven is the first player in Valparaiso history named to the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, presented  to the nation’s top Division I women’s and men’s soccer players. (Photo courtesy of Valparaiso Athletics)

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