Sophomore midfielder Elyse Nikonchuk’s ankle injury didn’t prevent her from doing what she does best: use her head.
Nikonchuk headed junior forward Jennifer Nobis’ throw-in into the goal to give Missouri a 1-0 victory against No. 23 Colorado on Sunday at Audrey J. Walton Soccer Complex.
The win brings MU’s record to 5-6-1, 2-2 in the Big 12 Conference and drops Colorado to 8-3-1 and 1-2 in conference.
Nikonchuk sprained her left ankle during the Tigers victory against Loyola on Sept. 19, but recovered well enough to play in last weekend’s games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
She re-injured her ankle midway through Friday’s 2-1 double overtime loss against visiting Nebraska and sat out the rest of that contest. Although she did not start on Sunday, she entered the game early in the first half.
“Every time I come and throw it in, everybody knows to get in the box and try to get a head on it or a flick on it, try to do something,” Nobis said. “…We needed to get a head on it, and that’s what Elyse did. She went out and did her job.”
The goal, scored midway through the second half, is Nikonchuk’s first of the season. Although Nikonchuk has scored on headers in high school and club competition, this is her first collegiate goal off a header.
“I’m just so pumped, and I wish we could have gotten more,” Nikonchuk said. “But we worked our butts off, and we got that one. I’m just so glad that Jenny threw it to my head that time. “
Nikonchuk won 14 of the 16 balls she battled for in the air on Sunday, helping her team gain possession at several crucial moments.
“The only thing I think when I go up for a head ball is that I’m going to win it,” Nikonchuk said. “That’s the only thing I can think because if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be going up in the first place.”
The Tigers’ defense shared Nikonchuk’s determination. Missouri outshot Colorado 12-5, holding it to two shots in the second half and only one on goal. Freshman goalkeeper Laura Buehrig recorded her second shut-out of the season.
“Our team prides ourselves on defense,” senior defender Ashley Gibbs said. “We can play against any offensive team in the nation. I think that’s our biggest strength.”
Gibbs played another outstanding game and earned her first team save midway through the second half when Buehrig was drawn out of the box by Colorado’s forward Katie Griffin. Griffin took a shot, but Gibbs protected the goal. Coach Bryan Blitz said that he has been impressed with her performance on the field this season.
“Ashley’s been playing great all year long, and she’s really showing her senior leadership,” Blitz said.
In the second half, the Tigers had several near misses on offense, but were unable to finish until Nikonchuk’s header. Senior forward Melissa Peabody, making her first appearance as a starter after being on the sidelines for most of the season because of an injury to her right knee, led the team in shots with four. Nobis, Nikonchuk and senior forward Kristen Heil had two each.
“We’re so proud of our team because of the heartbreak on Friday,” Blitz said. “This shows a lot of heart and a lot of character.”