QUINCY -- Dave Musso casually walked up to freshman forward Maddie Bauer as the Quincy University women's soccer team was warming up for its NCAA Tournament opener last Sunday and reminded her she was expected to play beyond her age.
"I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘You're not a freshman anymore, you know that?'" the QU coach said.
Bauer simply nodded in agreement.
"Right then, I knew she was ready for this level," Musso said.
The Hawks needed Bauer and freshman midfielder Mary Maloney to rapidly rise to that level to make this NCAA journey possible. The former high school teammates at St. Dominic in O'Fallon, Mo., were thrust into starting roles in the second half of Quincy's season, taking the place of two seasoned starters who suffered season-ending injuries.
All they've done is help the Hawks enjoy an 11-game unbeaten streak, win the Great Lakes Valley Conference regular-season championship and reach the Midwest Region finals for the first time since 2013.
"We know it's a big deal, and we take it as a big deal," Maloney said. "We're pretty honored to be a part of it."
The second-seeded Hawks (17-3-1) take on top-seeded Grand Valley State (19-3) at 11 a.m. Friday at Central Missouri University's South Recreation Complex in Warrensburg, Mo.
It's a rematch of the Sept. 29 game played on a neutral site at Lewis University in Romeoville. The Lakers won 2-0 in what was Bauer's first start in place of junior forward Abby Pulliam, who suffered a torn ACL in her right knee the week before.
"(Musso) was like, 'Are you ready to go?'" said Bauer, who has three goals and four assists this season, including a game-winner against William Jewell in double overtime. "I was like, 'Yeah, put me in. Whatever you need to do, I'll be ready.'"
The confident exterior hid some of the internal angst.
"On the outside, that's probably the way it seemed," Bauer said. "On the inside, you always have those little nerves. It's definitely gotten easier as we've gone through this process."
Friday's game is a measuring stick for how much she's grown.
"You could tell after the Grand Valley game, it was like, 'Hey, that's the level to be at,'" Musso said. "She's there now. I'm excited to see how she does Friday compared to the middle of the season."
The same could be said for Maloney.
An integral part of the attack coming off the bench the first 10 games, Maloney moved into the starting lineup on the road at Southern Indiana after sophomore midfielder Alex Severino suffered a torn ACL in her left knee against McKendree.
"When Sev went down, immediately I was like, 'Oh, God, it's serious. This is the end of her season,'" said Maloney, who has one goal and one assist. "But you just have to step it up. It was shocking at first, and I was nervous the first couple of games, but when you get to this point, it seems like a normal season. You go into it with a normal mindset."
That ability to fill the void comes from being completely prepared.
Although the Hawks returned 12 players with starting experience, the freshmen arrived in August with the mindset they wanted to earn playing time. So not a minute was wasted acting like freshmen.
"You still have to have the mindset that you're going to work your butt and try to get as close as you possibly can to starting," Maloney said. "Everyone else worked just as hard to keep their spot."
Everyone sets their egos aside.
"I came into it thinking, 'It's my freshman year. I have to prove myself. I have to work my way up. It's just not going to be given to me,'" Bauer said.
It endeared the freshmen to such a strong corps of upperclassmen.
"If the girls hadn't been welcoming and we didn't have the team chemistry, it would be a whole different situation," Bauer said. "We would be nervous every single game leading up to this point. The seniors have really taken leadership, calmed our nerves and given us that confidence.
"We are freshmen, but we can do things. They've helped us do those things."
More things will be expected of the duo, something Musso believes they will be able to handle.
"Any other year, they would have been starting level players right from the start," Musso said. "They are high-level players. You see that now."