A year ago, the Auburn soccer team shocked the conference with an unlikely run to the SEC tournament title, marching all the way from the bracket’s seventh seed to hoisting the championship trophy at the end of the week.
It was Auburn’s first SEC tournament championship in program history, and the Tigers became the first school from the Western division to ever win the tournament in its 18-year history, snatching the trophy from the jaws of Eastern division powerhouses like Florida and Tennessee for the first time.
This season, the road back to the tournament championship got even tougher, with soccer powers Missouri and No. 12 Texas A&M joining the Gators and Volunteers as a part of the conference’s elite.
As a result, the Tigers have a long way to climb once again, checking into this afternoon’s quarterfinal matchup against one of those powers, No. 19 Tennessee, as the tournament’s sixth seed.
The Tigers might be tremendous underdogs yet again going into Orange Beach and today’s match against the third-seeded Volunteers, who are ranked 15th in the RPI as opposed to the Auburn at 50th, but the defending tournament champions proved their mettle against Tennessee earlier in the year in a close 1-0 loss on Oct. 7.
“Tennessee’s a very, very talented team,” said senior forward Mary Coffed. “I think we’re all very excited that we drew Tennessee, because we kind of look back at that game and know there’s little things we could have done better like finishing and, of course, the goal. I think it gives us a little bit of confidence going into the game, just knowing that we can beat this team. But at the same we’re not going to take them for granted.”
Auburn blanked Tennessee, 2-0, in the two teams’ SEC tournament rematch a year ago. In their match earlier this season, the Volunteers’ only score came on a 22-yard free kick.
“Tennessee’s a good team, but the game could have gone either way,” sophomore forward Tatiana Coleman said of the Oct. 7 match. “We had our chances, they had their chances, but I think that we easily could have taken that game. I feel really good about us going into the SEC tournament and playing them, because we know how they play, we’ve played them before, and it’s going to be a great game because they know how we play too.
“Last year the same thing happened — they beat us in the regular season and we came back with a chip on our shoulder and we said, ‘We’re going to beat you this time when it really counts.’ So I think that it’s an advantage that we played them in the regular season, and we learned from our mistakes there too.”
For Auburn soccer head coach Karen Hoppa, there are a few adjustments that have been made since the last time her Tigers locked horns with the Lady Vols, but most of today’s result will simply come down to execution.
“You for sure re-evaluate what you did and all those things,” Hoppa said. “It has been a month, so they’re different. The good thing is I think we’re different. I think we’re a lot better team than when we played them last time, so that’s really our focus. More than trying to be different than how we played them, we just want to be better. Do what we were still trying to do that day, but be better at it.”
Tennessee finished the regular season at 14-4-2 overall, with a 9-3-1 record in conference play. The Tigers finished 11-9-0, 7-6-0 SEC.
“We expect the same,” said senior goalkeeper Amy Howard. “It was a great game last time. They capitalized on a mistake we made, and we’ve gotten better at those as the year has gone on, and we hope to really use everything we’ve learned every week as we’ve gotten better and use it against them.”
Auburn enters today’s match riding a wave of momentum after last Thursday’s 4-3 double-overtime victory over Alabama, which propelled the Tigers to the sixth seed and an automatic bye into the quarterfinal round.
That match, in which the Tigers led 3-0 and then surrendered three unanswered goals before Coleman’s game-winner, gave the Tigers plenty to think about before today’s match against Tennessee.
“I think that boosted our confidence a little bit,” said Coleman. “And we also learned that we can’t really sit on a lead like that, especially with good teams in the SEC tournament. We’ve just got to keep pushing, even if we’re up 3 or 4 to 0, we’ve got to keep pushing, keep attacking, keep them on their toes, because once we kind of let it sink in and lay back a little bit that’s what happens — and Alabama’s a good team and they came back from 3 down. So I think that it boosted our confidence a little bit and it also taught us a lesson.”
For Coach Hoppa, what the Tigers learned during Thursday’s result could prove pivital in how the Tigers play today against Tennessee, and perhaps beyond.
“It was a wild game, and it was one of those rivalry games where anything could happen,” Hoppa said of the Alabama game. “The good thing is I think we take a lot out of that game that will carry over. Obviously in the first half, we were outstanding, we played some of the best offense we could. In the first half, Bama tried to play real possession-oriented, which is how Tennessee plays, so hopefully that will give us some momentum there.
“And then obviously we learned a lot about trying to keep a lead, and we need to be better there, certainly. But we also learned a lot about our resiliency and our ability to come back and get that game-winner no matter how much time was left on the clock. Most importantly, it gives us momentum going into the conference tournament. It got us the bye, so we didn’t have to play (Monday), and it gives us momentum going into this game on Wednesday.”
Now the Tigers will have to put that Alabama game behind them and focus on today’s match against the Volunteers, with a spot in the SEC tournament semifinals and major NCAA tournament berth implications on the line.
Last year, the Tigers came into the SEC tournament with a different mentality, and they ended up walking away from Orange Beach as tournament champions.
“We kind of made it seem like it was a new season,” said Coffed. “We stressed during the year, taking it one game at a time, but it almost takes it to a new level of taking it one game at a time because with a loss our season could be over. You just have to focus on that one game and play like it’s your last, because it very well could be, and that’s what’s so exciting about the postseason and playoff play.”
Kickoff for today’s match is set for 2:30 p.m. in Orange Beach, Ala. The winner is set to face the winner of today’s Texas A&M-South Carolina match on Friday at 4 p.m.
“It’s definitely a postseason mentality, and we’ve really had that for the last few games,” said Howard. “But this is the real deal, and we have to have that mentality of this could very well be our last game so we’ve got to play like it is.
“We have to stay composed and play our game, because when we play our game we’re really tough to beat. We’ve got to stay together and work as a team, and make something new this year.”
Today’s match will be streamed live for free by the SEC Digital Network.
“We’ve all cleared our minds,” Coleman said. “Yeah, we’re really happy about (the Alabama game), but it’s on to the next game. Right now that means nothing that we’ve gotten into the tournament, and now we’ve got to take it game-by-game and really focus on Tennessee because that’s our first opponent. But I think that we’re really confident and we feel really good about where we’re at. We know we can attack, how we can attack, how good we can be, so I think that we’re in a good position here.”
TWER photos by Abby King and Amy Thorington.
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