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VOL. 42 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 16, 2018

VU, Lipscomb, UT find success in NCAA soccer play

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Kevin O’Brien didn’t have to look far to find a blueprint for building a program when he was hired as the Lipscomb University women’s soccer coach in 2012.

O’Brien wanted to compete with SEC programs, and Vanderbilt and Tennessee were great barometers for success.

“I kind of took that model from my own backyard and figured out how we can recruit to become the best mid-major at a smaller university,” O’Brien says. “I feel like we have really closed the gap and given ourselves a chance to get results against some pretty talented teams.”

In a banner year for Division I women’s soccer in the state, Lipscomb, Tennessee and Vanderbilt all recorded first-round wins in the NCAA tournament last weekend.

It’s the first time three Tennessee schools have reached the second round of the tournament.

Memphis also made the tournament, but was eliminated in the first round by Wisconsin.

The four state programs combined this season for two regular-season conference titles (Vanderbilt and Lipscomb), two conference tournament titles (Lipscomb and Memphis) and multiple conference Player of the Year honors.

During the final seven weeks of the regular season, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Memphis were all ranked in the Top 25 of the United Soccer Coaches poll.

“Among the soccer community in Tennessee, especially in girls high school and club, I think it’s raised the profile of college soccer,” Vanderbilt women’s coach Darren Ambrose says. “I think people notice the quality of college soccer amongst our programs and it’s created more awareness in the state.”

Lipscomb (15-4-2) prolonged its historic season by upsetting Mississippi State 1-0 in double overtime to become the first athletic team from Lipscomb to advance to the second round since officially transitioning to Division I in 2001.

The Atlantic Sun Conference champions battled for 109 scoreless minutes before redshirt junior Dom Diller stepped forward to take a free kick from near midfield. Diller’s ball bounced in the box and deflected off senior captain Justis Bailey into the net for the game-winning goal.

The Lady Bison play fourth-seeded Duke (15-3-2) in the second round on Friday at Georgetown’s Shaw Field in Washington D.C. Update: The Lady Bisons lost 3-0 to Duke.

“There is something really sweet about being the underdog,” O’Brien points out. “The expectation across the soccer world is that Duke will win.

“But soccer is highly unpredictable compared to other sports, and it’s not as easy to just say the higher-ranked team always wins.

“Just a funny bounce of the ball or miskick can change games.”

Second-seeded Tennessee (14-2-3) gets to enjoy the comforts of home for the second consecutive week.

The Lady Vols play Arizona (13-5-2) on Friday at Regal Soccer Stadium. Update: The Lady Vols defeated Arizona 3-2. The Lady Vols host the winner of the Texas A&M game on Sunday.

Tennessee received the typical late-game heroics from senior forward Bunny Shaw to keep its season alive. The SEC Offensive Player of the Year scored two goals in the final 15 minutes to lead the Vols to a 2-1 comeback win against Louisville in the first round.

Tennessee coach Brian Pensky knows Arizona won’t be intimidated by the Lady Vols after enduring the grind of the Pac-12 Conference.

“They have been around the block and played the absolute biggest dogs in Stanford, UCLA and USC,” Pensky says. “They will be athletic and be organized to play in a bunch of different shapes, and we have to be prepared for some different looks. Hopefully, our kids can continue to create chances.”

Behind a goal and an assist from SEC Freshman of the Year Haley Hopkins, Vanderbilt beat Murray State 4-0 at the Vanderbilt Soccer Complex to advance to the second round for the second straight season.

The Commodores (16-3-1) travel to play second-seeded Baylor (18-5) on Friday Waco, Texas. Update: Vanderbilt lost 3-1.

After winning the SEC regular-season title, Vanderbilt was eliminated in its conference tournament opener against Florida.

Ambrose says he could sense his players were distracted before facing the Gators.

“I think they became a bit of a deer in the headlights. I don’t think our kids gave themselves enough credit of how good they were and were overwhelmed with the publicity and attention,” Ambrose acknowledges.

“Their confidence got a little shaken after that loss, but I think our kids recovered very well and I think they found a little bit of a groove again. The practices leading up to Murray State were as good as they’ve been all year.”

Although the coaches are focused on their own programs, they do pay attention to what the other state schools are doing. Their teams play against each other, and they see each other on the recruiting trail. O’Brien and Ambrose are friends, and meet for lunch in Nashville every once in a while.

“The fact that Vandy and Tennessee were so strong this year, I was really excited for those guys,” O’Brien says. “I know the hard work they put in, and Darren was kind of similar to me when he came and had to make a lot of changes to develop his program to what it is today. He has done a fantastic job.”

As much as they are competitors in many realms, the programs have respect for what the others have achieved and hope it continues raising the level of soccer in the state.

“What you have at each school is individual platforms for success and coaching staffs that really love to work and take pride in the grind,” Pensky explains. “Everybody is kind of seeing the fruits of their labor right now and it’s coming to the forefront at the same time.”

Having all the programs keep advancing in the NCAAs may be a longshot, but O’Brien has faith his team can spring another upset. After all, he built the Lady Bison with these kind of victories in mind.

“For us, there is great confidence and belief to be able to get the result,” O’Brien says.

“We might be the only 30 people in America that think we can win, but we certainly do.”

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