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Auburn soccer returns home to take on South Carolina and Ole Miss

Defenders Mary Nicholson (21) and Kala Faulkner (4) have had to sweat lineup changes throughout the season before the back line rotation finally settled down in conference play.

There isn’t much room for error left for the Auburn soccer team going into its third week of conference play tonight.

The Tigers sit with a 5-6-0 overall record after splitting last weekend’s matches against LSU and then-No. 10 Texas A&M, having earned their first conference win to lift the team to 1-3-0 SEC.

Auburn defeated LSU in Baton Rouge, 3-1, last Friday before falling to the tenth-ranked Aggies, 2-0, in College Station last Sunday. That loss sent the Tigers to back under .500 on the season, where both the team and the coaching staff are feeling pressure to string together a few more wins.

The Tigers host South Carolina tonight at 7 p.m. at the Auburn Soccer Complex, and take on Ole Miss on Sunday at 2 p.m.

“It’s time to put all the pieces together,” said head coach Karen Hoppa. “We’ve talked about it this week. We don’t want to just say ‘Well, we made progress even though we didn’t get the result.’ We can’t say that any more.

“Now it’s about getting results.”

Still, the Tigers are plenty confident that they can pick up a couple of wins at home and improve that 1-3-0 SEC record this weekend, in part because those three losses came to three of the best teams in the league, and in part because the Tigers played some of the best soccer they’ve played all year on the road against LSU and Texas A&M.

“Obviously we want to win every game, but getting a split on a tough trip like that is still a pretty good result,” Hoppa said. “But the biggest positive of the weekend was that we played our best soccer of the year, against two really quality teams. I thought we took another step overall. Last weekend was a better weekend than before, so if we can take one more step and put it all together and gets results this weekend, we’ll be really happy.”

Before last weekend’s loss to now-No. 6 Texas A&M, the Tigers dropped matches to 11th-ranked Missouri and the No. 24 Florida Gators at home. Now, not only did Auburn gain experience against the league’s elite, but those three games are behind the Tigers moving forward in conference play.

“We got unlucky a few times last weekend,” said senior defender Mary Nicholson. “We played pretty good soccer both games, and obviously won against LSU and lost against A&M. But looking forward we’ve just got to fix some of the small things that we’re doing in the back line to give the offense to opportunity to score some goals and put us ahead early.”

A senior captain at center-back, Nicholson has led a Tiger defensive back line that is starting to solidify itself after rotating through a number of players earlier in the season. Now, the back line is at full strength with junior Bianca Sierra back from international competition and a number of true freshmen having gathered on-field experience.

“I think the defense has definitely settled down,” Hoppa said. “They’ve played really, really well. Certainly getting Bianca into the middle has helped solidify things. Kala (Faulkner) has been fantastic all year, and Sophie (Simantel) and Kim (Spence) are both playing well and both getting a lot of minutes. I think those five have really settled that back line down a lot.”

For those freshman, Nicholson and the rest of the senior class have been crucial to their improvement through the season.

“Just learning from them, especially with Mary being in the back, and she’s next to me,” said Faulkner, a freshman defender. “Learning from her is just really good. She’s always talking to me, telling me what to do, ‘Push left, push right.’ Just having her back there is really good for me as a freshman.”

If the Tigers hope to pick up a pair of wins this weekend, slowing down the Gamecock and Rebel forwards will be crucial for the Auburn defenders, including Nicholson.

“Mary is such a good leader on the back line,” Hoppa said. “She’s such a smart player. She understands the game, she reads the game really well, and she communicates great. She helps keep everybody else where they’re supposed to go. She just does such a great job of not just leading them, but teaching them and making them better.”

Now, Nicholson hopes she and her teammates can put together a run to finish her senior season, starting with tonight’s match against South Carolina.

“We got our first couple of weekends out of the way and we’re back at home,” said Nicholson. “So it’s a good opportunity for us to take and get two wins and move forward.”

Related: Bend it like T-Ball.

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