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SOCCER’S IRON BOWL: Auburn battles Bama tonight in regular season finale

Senior goalkeeper Amy Howard will protect the home goal once again tonight on Senior Night.

Auburn head soccer coach Karen Hoppa said that her team has been waiting all year for tonight’s match against bitter rival Alabama.

For most coaches and teams, statements like that usually just seem like coachspeak — but for a team with as much on the line as these Auburn Tigers have tonight, that kind of talk seems only too true.

The Tigers will take on the Crimson Tide at 7 p.m. tonight at home at the Auburn Soccer Complex, with revenge on the mind, Senior Night in the heart, and a cloud of SEC tournament implications looming overhead.

Auburn enters this year’s matchup after losing the Iron Bowl of soccer last season for the first time in five years. The Tigers will recognize six seniors as a part of Senior Night during the match.

But perhaps most importantly, the team is fighting for better positioning in the newly reformatted SEC tournament in Orange Beach.

This season, after the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, the tournament expanded from 8 teams to 10 teams, pitting the 7th-10th seeds in a new first round while the rest of the bracket watches as the field narrows back down to 8 teams for the second round.

Senior defender Mary Nicholson and the Tigers need a win and an Arkansas loss or tie to reach the tournament’s coveted 6th seed.

Entering the final night of the regular season, Auburn sits as the tournament’s 7th seed at 6-6-0 in conference play, just a half-game behind 6th-place Arkansas, at 6-5-1. With a win tonight, and an Arkansas loss or tie on the road at LSU, Auburn would take over the 6th spot and earn a pivotal first-round bye in the tournament.

If not, it will be a long road ahead for the defending SEC tournament champions.

“The sixth seed is massive,” Hoppa said. “Having a bye in any tournament in any sport is big, but to have it in soccer is even more massive. You can’t play four games in a week. You just can’t do it. And you also can’t play an opponent that’s fresh if you’ve played within 48 hours. It’s just an unequalizer, significantly. The bye’s important.

“Unfortunately, it’s not completely in our control, so our control is only the game we play, so we’re really going to get focused on Alabama and trying to handle what we can control and hope that the rest of the cards fall in our way.”

Meanwhile across the pitch, the Alabama side will be fighting to earn a spot in the SEC tournament as the 10th seed.

If the Tide beat the Tigers tonight, Alabama could (barring top-seeded Florida losing to South Carolina in a major upset) move up into the 10th spot while Auburn slides to the 7th spot, setting up an Iron Bowl rematch in the tournament’s first round, just four days after tonight’s game.

With all of that in mind, as well as NCAA tournament implications, players said the team has already entered a playoff-scenario mindset.

“I think we’re definitely in the postseason mode,” said senior forward Mary Coffed. “We’re fighting for that bye, and they’re fighting for a spot. Every game is just so important now, and that’s what makes it really fun.”

For senior goalkeeper Amy Howard, blocking out all of those distractions, forgetting the stakes, and playing their game will be key to the Tigers’ success.

“Every time we play Alabama, no matter what, no matter who’s better, no matter the records, it’s all out the window,” Howard said. “And it’s going to be one heck of a game, because they’re playing for something, we’re playing for something. It’s going to be emotions with senior night, it’s for seeding, it’s for the tournament. It’s for so many things, but once that whistle blows we’ve got to forget everything else and play.”

Ana Cate will have her game face on.

Last season, the Tigers fell to the Tide in Tuscaloosa, 3-2, in the regular season finale. A narrow victory at home in 2010 capped the end of a five-game winning streak for Auburn in the rivalry.

“We need to come out hard and fast,” said senior defender Mary Nicholson. “We haven’t the past couple of years and that’s gotten us in trouble. We had to come back two years ago and last year we weren’t able to do it. So, come out fast, score early, and then defend.”

With major postseason implications hanging around for both teams, tonight’s match — already the biggest match of the year, being Auburn-Alabama — has gotten even bigger.

“It’s really exciting, and I think we’re ready,” Hoppa said. “We’ve been waiting a year for this game. It’s the Iron Bowl of soccer. We play them every year, we have a traveling trophy that was on our campus for five years and we lost it last year. So our focus is to get that trophy back, and I think the girls are ready, they’re hungry, and we’ve got so much to play for.”

Senior midfielder Ana Cate wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Regardless of how either of our seasons are going, whenever we play them, it’s going to be a freakin’ war,” Cate said. “We’re excited. There’s no better way to end our season than playing Alabama and playing them with so much to play for.”

Bottom photos courtesy David Nicholson

Related: Bend it like T-Ball.

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