The Elon University women’s soccer team put on a dominant performance against the College of Charleston during their regular-season finale at Rudd Field Oct. 22. An early goal by junior forward Kelly Degnan gave the Phoenix breathing room from the outset. Impressive second-half goals by freshman forward Grace Gelhaus and freshman midfielder Gabby Hoschek put Elon in position to cap off their 2023 campaign with a 3-0 victory.

Both teams sat near the bottom of the Coastal Athletic Association standings entering the match and there were no outcomes that would allow either squad to clinch a postseason berth to the CAA tournament.

Since the match’s result would not affect postseason play for either team, Elon senior goalkeeper McKenna Dalfonso said the Phoenix went into their final game with an unencumbered mindset. 

“There was a party in the locker room before,” Dalfonso said. “We had nothing to lose, last game. We wanted to go out with a bang, and we did.”

With nine losses and five draws to Elon’s name, wins have come at a premium this season for the Phoenix, as the victory over the Cougars marked its third victory of the year. 

Elon head coach Neil Payne said the win was a byproduct of his team’s resilience and character within the waning weeks of what had become a difficult season.

“It would have been really easy a couple of weeks ago just to give up on the season and they didn't do that,” Payne said. “Every day in practice, they worked hard, got better. I felt like they were rewarded for that today.”

Elon held the Cougars to just one shot on goal in the opening period, which came in the third minute when Dalfonso thwarted Charleston sophomore midfielder Bubbles Denver.

After Denver’s shot, Elon never looked back. Junior forward Lydia Totten found Degnan in the 8th minute, Degnan sent a shot off her right foot into the bottom right of the net, allowing for the Phoenix to strike first blood with an early 1-0 advantage.

Totten registered a shot of her own soon after in the opening stanza, but was unable to convert. Hoschek also had a good look in the 40th minute; however, the former CAA rookie of the week was unable to score on Charleston junior goalkeeper Savannah Barron. In the waning seconds of the first half, Degnan also almost added another goal to her name, but Barron blocked her attempt — leaving the Cougars trailing by one heading into the break.

While the Cougars played an impressive second half, Elon effectively outplayed them and successively pitched a shutout. Dalfonso recently became the all-time shutout leader in Elon program history. With the win over the Cougars marking her final game in the maroon and gold, she finished her career with 22 shutouts.

Coming out of the break, a shot in the 47th minute by Charleston graduate student midfielder Grace Powell looked on-line, but Dalfonso picked up what would be her first of four saves in the second period.

Before the Phoenix went on to score its final two goals of the afternoon, tensions arose as three yellow cards were awarded within a 10-minute span. Hoschek, Elon junior forward Isabelle Paradoski and Charleston’s fifth-year forward Olivia Freitas all were flagged.

Soon after the influx of yellow cards, Gelhaus ran up the score for the Phoenix in the 58th minute, as she beat three defenders down field and sent a shot into the bottom left of the goal to put Elon up 2-0.

Even with the commanding lead, Elon’s efforts did anything but waver. Payne said the most important factor for Elon was their continued energy throughout the entire afternoon.

Right before its final goal, the Phoenix fired away at the Charleston defense, as a four-shot barrage took place all within two minutes.

Elon ultimately put away the Cougars in the 81st minute during a frantic sequence in which Gelhaus crossed the ball from the left wing to Totten to set up the play. Totten then had the composure to head the ball to a cutting Hoschek who sent it in the back of the net to give the Phoenix its final goal of the season.  

While Elon will see departures from important seniors such as Dalfonso, Paradoski and defenders Emilia Cappellett and Kerri Coffman, there will be plenty of returners to the squad.

Before Elon’s senior day game against Drexel Oct. 8, it was announced that senior defender Katie Lowe will be returning for a fifth year.

“I’m planning on going to med school after my fifth year, so I need to do more classes for that,” Lowe said in a previous interview with Elon News Network. “Also, I wasn't quite done or satisfied with my soccer career.”

On top of returning a staple such as Lowe to Elon’s backline, the Phoenix boast a large freshman class with many presumably returning — many of whom have already found their way into Payne’s rotation.

“We've got a big freshman class this year with 11 players, and a lot of them expedited their development this year, because we needed them to,” Payne said. “That's a massive positive taking from this season that we can take into next season.”

Key freshman rotation players include Gelhaus and Hoschek, who both individually earned CAA rookie of the week honors throughout the season. Hoschek was awarded CAA rookie of the week honors for a second time Oct. 23.

Payne said what most people don’t realize is that at one point of the season, Elon faced as many as eight injuries to key players. He said he is looking forward to having those injured players return because of the major roles they could play next season.

“It's always going to be a challenge if you've got that many injuries,” Payne said. “Of those eight, six were never featured all season. So, looking forward to the injured players coming back because they’re impact players.”

While Dalfonso has played her last game for the Phoenix, she said she thinks there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about the future of the program.

“Building off this last game and the last couple games of the season, they can take that and go into next year and they can have a really good chance of winning a conference championship,” Dalfonso said.