After a 2-0 home weekend for Missouri Soccer, with big wins over Montana and Cal State Northridge, the Tigers head into conference play this weekend with a lot of momentum on their side. Coach Bryan Blitz picked up his 200th win at MU, Taylor Grant was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week, and Mizzou is riding a six-match unbeaten streak. Now entering their third year in the SEC, can the Tigers finally make some noise in the conference? Possibly claw their way back into a NCAA tournament? Success this year will be determined by how well Mizzou plays in the SEC this year. A look at each opponent they'll face and how they fare in one of the nation's toughest women's soccer conferences':
The Bayou Bengals will be up in Columbia this Friday as the third game of a four-game road trip for LSU, escaping BYU with a 4-3 victory, and dropping a close match to No. 25 Duke 0-1. (It's also worth noting that one of LSU's losses was to TCU, a team Missouri beat the week before LSU played in Fort Worth). All-SEC Summer Clarke is off to a good start with 10 points and 4 goals so far this year, tied for the top spot on the team. After the loss of starting Keeper Megan Kinnemann, freshman Lily Alfeld beat out sophomore Morgan Ruhl for the starting spot, and it seems Coach Brian Lee made the right choice, as Alfeld currently leads the SEC with 36 saves on .800 save percentage. If LSU can get past Missouri on the road, things may open up to get back to the SEC tournament this year.
No. 16 South Carolina has rolled out to a quick 7-1-0 start behind the outstanding play of All-American senior Sabrina D'Angelo, who has allowed just one goal through the first eight games of the year. That's good for a .950 save percentage, ranking her fourth in the nation. The Gamecocks could cruise off her fantastic defensive play to an SEC Championship, that is, if the offense can keep attacking and score some more goals. USC only has 14 goals this year, ranking them tied for 11th in the conference. D'Angelo can't do it all, so there will need to be some offensive work done if the Gamecocks want to clinch the SEC title in Orange Beach this fall.
Of all the SEC non-conference slates this year, the Gators might have had the most on their plate. UF took on three top 25 teams to start the year, knocking off No. 5 Florida State, but dropping close loses to No. 4 Stanford and No. 15 Oklahoma. Freshman All-American Savannah Jordan has picked up where she left off from last year, leading the Gator attack with 5 goals and 12 points, good for top five in the SEC in 2014. Also on the roster is senior Keeper Taylor Burke, who has allowed just four goals on a save percentage of .800. Florida has proved it can hang with some of the best in the country, but can they take care of business this year with trips to Texas A&M and South Carolina to look forward to?
A team that we haven't seen much of, Kentucky bounced back from an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Washington with five straight wins and 13 goals in that span. The 'Cats nearly knocked off No. 13 Pepperdine a few weeks ago, but the Waves pulled away in overtime for a 3-2 victory. I would say UK is in a similar situation that Missouri is in. They've pulled out some wins (whether it be in convincing fashion or not), but it's been against subpar teams like Francis Marion, Ohio, and Morehead State. Both teams nearly knocked off a ranked opponent, but fell short late in the game. So we'll see what this Kentucky team is really capable of when they open against Arkansas in Fayetteville this Friday.
Despite a decent start to the year, the Commodores offense has yet to impress in 2014. Vandy ranks 11th in goals this year with 14 and 12th in total points with just 37 through the first eight games. A new wrinkle in the attack has been true freshman Colby Ciarrocca, who leads the team in goals (5), points (10), and game-winning goals (2) for VU this season. Along with Ciarrocca, All-SEC freshman Simone Charley has been directing the attack for the 'Dores to start the year, with a team-leading 32 shots this year (18 on goal). Can these two help guide Vanderbilt back to their first SEC Tournament appearance since 2010?
Auburn's offense hasn't been flashy to start the year, but it's been very effective in leading the Tigers to six wins to start the year, with 10 different players scoring at least one goal so far this season. Auburn sits at second in the SEC with 18 goals so far this year, with an SEC-leading 24 assists to go with it. This team is playing unselfish soccer and it could pay dividends deep into the conference season. The defense has been strong as well behind the play of Keeper Alicen Wright, who has saved 16 shots (.727 save pct) en route to four shutouts this season. None of the Tiger's wins have been anything to write home about, but there could be some chatter going throughout the conference if Auburn can upset South Carolina at home on Sunday.
Record: 5-1-1 (0-0-1 SEC)
So far this year, the Bulldogs having been playing very good soccer to start the year. The offense ranks top five in goals (17) and assists (21) through their first seven games, and the defense has allowed just five goals behind the great play of true freshman Louis Hogrell, who boasts a .808 save percentage off of 21 saves. Hogrell has also posted four shutouts in 2014. UGA looks like a very well rounded team that could steal a couple this year.
Coach Todd Bramble and the Tide are looking to rebound off a rough 6-12 finish last year, where they lost the last six of their seven games to close out the season. Alabama returns nine starters from 2013, including leading goal scorer Pia Ridsdjik, and starting Keeper Emily Rusk. Right now, the Crimson Tide sit in the middle of the pack in the SEC, and the scale is teetering both ways as to whether they'll rise up the conference rankings or stay near the bottom once again in 2014.
Record: 5-1-2 (0-0-1 SEC)
After a bad loss to Louisville, the Rebels have soared their way past everyone and are currently riding a five match unbeaten streak with wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, Minnesota, and Memphis. Forwards Addie Forbus and Olivia Harrison have spearheaded the Ole Miss attack to start the year with 22 points and 10 goals, more than the rest of the team combined. As effective as those two have been to the offense, they won't be able to do it all on their own come games against Texas A&M or South Carolina. Florida isn't on the schedule this year, but the Rebels get Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mizzou, and Tennessee at home in Oxford, and if you're Ole Miss, you don't want to settle for any draws in any of those matches if you hope to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Don't let the record fool you, Tennessee may have had just as tough of a non-conference line up as Florida did. The Vols faced off against #9 Wisconsin, #2 Virginia, and then-ranked #23 BYU, but they fell short in each outing by just a goal. 2012 All-American Hannah Wilkinson has been the offensive leader for Tennessee with 4 goals and 7 points through the first part of the season, pacing the Volunteers to an SEC-leading .188 shot percentage this year. Another ranked test will be up for UT on Thursday when they travel to #12 Texas A&M. A solid outing from Wilkinson and Keeper Jamie Simmons could spell upset against the Aggies.
The Hogs are coming off one of the best seasons in recent memory, with a 16-9 finish and a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16. They have the pieces the repeat that run, especially with All-SEC Midfielder Ashleigh Ellenwood returning for 2014. Ellenwood led the Razorbacks in Goals and Points for the past two seasons, and seems poised to do it again with a team-leading 4 goals and 12 points to start the season. In goal, sophomore Cameron Carter is coming off a record-setting freshman year where she tallied school records for wins, games started, and games played. Carter also finished second in the SEC with 96 saves, with a career best performance of 12 saves in Arkansas's 4-0 over Missouri in the SEC tournament. This team returns pretty much intact, and should be a dark horse to make some noise in the SEC later this year.
The Tigers schedule avoided a match up with No. 12 Texas A&M, but on the flip side of that coin, Mizzou won't have a match against Mississippi State this season. (Currently 3-4 with losses to Furman and South Alabama). There are some definite winnable games on this schedule. The home schedule is a huge plus for MU, with matches vs. LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Arkansas on the program at Walton Stadium. Road trips will define the success for this team, however. The Tigers travel to top 25 South Carolina and Florida within a three day span, leaving stamina and energy up in the air for the weekend. Could Mizzou be able to steal a win, (or even a draw), from two of the best in the nation? I say no right now, but the team has overachieved so far, so I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to sneak away from Gainesville/Columbia with at least one win or draw. Overall, I believe a ten-win season and a return trip to the SEC Tournament are very possible for Missouri Soccer. Kaysie Clark needs to continue getting the ball to Taylor Grant and pushing the Tigers attack, while McKenzie Sauerwein must keep making plays in goal to keep the Tigers in the big games. If MU can do both, Bryan Blitz will be booking a return trip to Orange Beach this November.