Auburn fans and athletes alike know a thing or two about bitter, in-state rivalries.
Whether it’s on the football gridiron, the basketball court, or the baseball diamond, the Tigers have always been entrenched in a century-old hate against their cross-state Southeastern Conference counterparts.
But a new series has started to take shape within the last decade, capturing the Tigers’ attention and focus — this time, on the soccer pitch.
“They always play us like it’s their Iron Bowl,” said Auburn senior co-captain Mary Nicholson. “And we always play them just like we play Alabama.”
Nicholson is talking about the visiting Samford Bulldogs, who the Tigers have played seven times since the schools’ first-ever meeting in 2003. Auburn hosts Samford tonight at the Auburn Soccer Complex, with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
“They’re an in-state rival, so they’re going to be hard,” said Nicholson, who starts at center-back on the Auburn defensive back line. “They’re usually an athletic and physical team, so we’ll just have to be a little cautious in the back and make sure we cover for each other.”
Nicholson knows all about the Bulldogs and this rivalry, having graduated from Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham, just five miles away from the Samford campus.
The Tigers have recruited several players like her over the years from the Birmingham area — the state’s hotbed of soccer talent — and pitted them against former teammates and opponents now suiting up for the Bulldogs. Between high school soccer and club play, nearly every player in tonight’s match from that area, on either side, has built up a history with one another.
Now, after coming up through that Birmingham soccer factory, games like Auburn-Samford give those athletes the opportunity to prove themselves against each other at the next level.
“Samford has a very, very good program,” said Auburn soccer head coach Karen Hoppa. “They’ve won their conference, they’ve been in the NCAA’s. They’re very well-coached. It’s an in-state rival for us for sure. It’s an exciting game. A lot of our girls have played with their girls, and have that history. I think it’s a big in-state rival.”
If the defending SEC tournament champions are going to knock off the defending SoCon tournament champions, the Tigers are going to have to play the same solid defense that they’ve been playing so far in 2012. Auburn has done well in that category against Samford in this young series, holding the Bulldogs to just three total goals in eight matches, with two of those coming in a 4-2 orange and blue victory a year ago in front of a school-record Samford crowd in Birmingham.
Tonight, the success of that defensive back line will depend heavily on the play and demeanor of Nicholson, its senior leader and captain.
“Mary’s holding that defense together — especially with Bianca Sierra still at the World Cup,” Hoppa said. “She’s helping the freshmen tremendously. She’s communicating, she’s keeping that group organized, and really helping to keep us in the game.”
This weekend could mark the last set of games before Sierra, a returning starter on the defensive back line a year ago, and midfielder Ashley Kotero make their return stateside to the team after competing for Mexico at the U-20 FIFA World Cup. The Mexican National Team was eliminated in extra time yesterday in the tournament’s quarterfinal round.
“I think we’ve done pretty well considering the circumstances,” Nicholson said. “There’s always things that you can fix and work on, and to be honest, if we had the same back line as last year we would still have things to work on.”
Without Sierra for at least one more game, the Tigers will again call upon sophomore forward to step into a starting role on the back line in substitute duty. Ball has started each game so far this season in unfamiliar territory in the defensive backfield.
“It’s been fun,” Ball said. “It’s definitely different from playing forward and scoring goals. You’ve got to block shots now. But I’ve definitely learned a lot from Mary Nicholson and the entire back line and Coach Hoppa. It’s been great.”
Still, Auburn hasn’t appeared to miss a beat so far this year defensively, and this weekend the Tigers are returning home, where they played an outstanding set of matches on defense during the season’s opening weekend.
“Tori’s been great,” Nicholson said. “She’s stepped in, and she’s a natural. She can do everything that a defender needs to do in the back. She communicates really well, and she’s extremely fast and physical. She’s a good fit.”
While Ball has been playing out of position throughout this young season, she has taken it all in stride, and has relished in her time alongside Nicholson on the back line.
“Tori’s done a great job of just being a team player to step into that center-back,” Hoppa said.
She may want to return to the forward spot eventually, but for now, Ball is just ready to take the field and beat Samford — and she’s not even from Birmingham.
“It’s a heated rivalry,” the Mobile native said. “We’re excited.”
TWER photo by Amy Thorington.
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