The last time Auburn’s soccer team played a Southeastern Conference game, the match ended with the Tigers lifting the SEC tournament championship trophy.
A lot has changed since then, but this weekend the Tigers will take their first steps toward defending that title, in what could prove to be their toughest two-game stretch of the season.
At 7 p.m., the Tigers host No. 21 Missouri at the Auburn Soccer Complex, in Mizzou’s first-ever match as a conference member. Things won’t get much easier for Auburn after that, as No. 22 Florida visits the Plains on Sunday at 2 p.m., attempting to avenge a 3-2 loss to Auburn in that SEC tournament championship game last year.
This evening’s match against Missouri will serve as the season’s conference opener for both teams of Tigers.
“It’s always exciting when you make that transition from the non-conference to knowing that you’re going into league play,” said Auburn soccer head coach Karen Hoppa. “Every game in our season matters, but obviously the league games always matter a little bit more. There’s definitely that added energy this week and that added focus.”
After a seven-games, the Tigers currently sit with a 4-3-0 record, hoping that their tough out-of-conference slate has them better prepared for league play.
“I think we’re definitely prepared,” said senior forward Mary Coffed. “We weren’t extremely thrilled with our losses, but on a positive note we definitely learned from them. I think so much of that will help us in these SEC games and through conference play. Hopefully the lessons we learned outweigh the feelings of the losses.”
Auburn’s early-season schedule included a road trip to California to play UC Irvine and No. 18 Pepperdine, as well as a set of home matchups against the likes of in-state rival Samford and defending CAA conference-champion William & Mary.
“We’re getting there,” said sophomore forward Tatiana Coleman. “We’re not exactly where we should be, but I believe that our team will eventually get there. We have the talent, we have what all the other teams have, we just haven’t put it all together yet. But I think we’ll be fine.”
The Tigers concluded non-conference play with a victory over Texas Tech, 2-1, at home last Saturday.
“It was a very tough schedule,” Hoppa said. “We played some great non-conference opponents, and I think we got better. We certainly ended non-conference with our best result. We’re happy with that and we’re hoping to build momentum on that. We saw a lot of different styles from a lot of different teams so hopefully it did get us prepared.”
For Coffed, that win over the Red Raiders could prove to be a boost for her and her teammates as they enter tonight’s conference opener.
“I think in our last game against Texas Tech everything really came together,” said Coffed. “We got together after and said ‘Wow, that really was clicking’, especially with us in the midfield. There were some games that we were definitely off in, but ending the non-conference schedule with such a high note, it gives us a lot of confidence and excitement going into the rest of the season.
“Hopefully we stay clicking.”
Auburn finished with a 5-5-1 SEC record a year ago, good for just a seventh seed in the conference tournament before the Tigers’ made their postseason run. This year, the Tigers have sharpened their focus as they’ve turned their attention from non-conference play to SEC action.
“We haven’t taken any team lightly, but now it’s a lot more serious,” Coleman said. “We’re playing better teams. They’re going to be more organized. The few chances that we do get we need to put them away. It’s a lot more serious and we’re practicing really hard too. We’re getting prepared.”
For the Tigers to start conference play off on the right foot, they’ll have to beat two of the better teams they’ll face all season.
“We have two amazing teams ahead of us, and I think we just need to stick to how we play,” Coffed said. “They play kind of a different style, so I think if we stick to how we normally do, and play together and all that, that’s going to be our key to success.”
Revenge will be the theme of the night for visiting Florida on Sunday, as the Gators and Tigers face off in a rematch of the 2011 SEC tournament championship game. Earlier in 2011, Auburn dropped a 3-2 loss to Florida in overtime in Gainesville.
“We had some great games last year with Florida,” Hoppa said. “I think Florida’s a better team. They return everybody. They’re the elite team in our conference. They’ve won more championships than anyone, and they’re going to be a tough opponent on Sunday.”
But before the Tigers can think about one of the SEC’s perennial powers, they first have to worry about one of the conference’s newest members.
“Missouri has had a fantastic non-conference, and they’re going to be a great team,” Hoppa said. “They run a little different style and they’re going to be a little more direct. They’re very, very talented, they’re very good at what they do. They’ve got some dynamic players up top. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Opening up conference play against two top-25 opponents wouldn’t be easy for any team, but if the Tigers proved anything the last time they took to the pitch in SEC action, it’s that they know how to take on a challenge.
“We have to outwork them for 90 minutes,” Coleman said. “There’s no way we can slack off, or take our mind off the ball for two seconds. We have to be on our game, and we have to be patient. Our chances will come, but the chances we do have, we have to put them away, because we’re not going to get them every minute.
“So a lot of focus, and a lot of effort.”
TWER photo by Amy Thorington.
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