North Texas Daily

Soccer eyes Conference USA tournament title

Soccer eyes Conference USA tournament title

Soccer eyes Conference USA tournament title
October 28
00:21 2014

Scott Sidway / Staff Writer

When the final buzzer sounded on Sunday afternoon to signify a 2-0 victory over Old Dominion University, the Mean Green soccer team secured a share of its first regular season Conference USA championship.

But a regular season championship means very little in the grand scheme of a soccer season. In order to “win that ring,” a theme echoed by multiple North Texas soccer players, the team must win the C-USA tournament.

The tournament will take place in Charlotte, N.C. from Nov. 5-8 and consists of the top eight teams in the conference. As of today, five of those teams have clinched berths in the tournament, with the five additional teams competing for the final three spots. 

North Texas, Rice University, the University of Texas – El Paso, Middle Tennessee State University and Western Kentucky University have all earned tournament berths. Teams such as Marshall University, Louisiana Tech University, the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, Old Dominion and Florida International University are all clinging onto their playoff lives. The Mean Green still has a chance to clinch sole possession of the C-USA regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Yet despite North Texas and the others clinching berths, the logjam in the middle of the standings makes it impossible to predict the seeding and matchups for the tournament. Regardless, head coach John Hedlund said that the conference’s depth will provide a challenge for his team.

“There’s probably five or six teams that can win it all,” Hedlund said. “Rice, UTEP, Charlotte – those are three off hand. But it’s a very, very competitive conference from top to bottom.”

The move from the Sun Belt to C-USA before the 2013 season brought a higher level of competition for all of North Texas athletics.  Because his team competed in last year’s tournament and fell short in the championship game, Hedlund said he can attest to the higher level of competition in C-USA.

“Usually in the Sun Belt, we’d get a couple easy wins,” Hedlund said. “We knew we were going to beat some teams, but not in this conference.” 

Regardless of the conference, these tournaments always contain a variable of familiarity. The teams play each other throughout the regular season and often get matched up again in the conference tournament. Hedlund said there are advantages and disadvantages of playing a rubber match in the postseason.

“I think it helps and it hurts,” Hedlund said. “They know what we can do if we’ve played them before, and then obviously we know a lot about them. But again, there’s going to be no easy games. If we get the one seed, whoever the eighth seed is, it’s going to be a battle.”

Of the nine other teams that have either earned a berth or are competing for one of the three remaining spots, North Texas has faced seven of them in the regular season. Fortunately for the Mean Green, the only C-USA team that defeated them this year, Florida Atlantic University, was eliminated from playoff contention.

If the tournament started today, North Texas will have played four of the top eight teams, and all but one of those games were decided by one goal or fewer.

One advantage in the Mean Green’s favor is the championship experience held by the upperclassmen. Even though North Texas fell short in last year’s conference championship game, the juniors and seniors were part of the Sun Belt championship team in 2012.

Junior captain and midfielder Lindsey Hulstein was on that team and said that the experience separates them from the competition.

“A lot of the teams we’ll be playing, they’ve never won a championship before,” Hulstein said. “So the fact that we have a history of winning and that we expect that in a season really helps.”

Veteran leadership has been crucial for the Mean Green throughout the regular season, considering how the team’s resolve has been consistently tested. The team blew one-goal leads in the final minute of play twice early on in the season.

Since losing a last second heartbreaker against Gonzaga University on Sept. 19, the Mean Green is 7-2-1, with four of those games being decided by two or more goals and six of them shutouts. In that 10-game stretch, the team has outscored its opponents 18-4. In the nine games prior to the Gonzaga loss, the team’s scoring differential was 13-6.

The Mean Green hopes that the recent momentum on both sides of the ball carries into its final regular season game and the conference tournament. Junior goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine said she has confidence in the team.

“I believe that we could go all the way,” Kerestine said. “We just have to take it one game at a time and not underestimate anybody, because nobody is going to hand us a win. We’re going to have to work for it.”

Featured Image: Junior Goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine kicks the ball away from her goal before halftime Sunday against Old Dominion. Photo by Adrian Warfield – Staff Photographer

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