MOBILE, Ala. - Strong offensive play combined with tough defense down the stretch propelled No. 2 seed Middle Tennessee past No. 7 seed and host South Alabama, 2-1, in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Conference Soccer Tournament on Wednesday evening.
MT (14-4-1) advanced to the semifinals for the second time in three years. The Blue Raiders face No. 3 seed FIU in a 7 p.m. contest on Friday at the Cage in Mobile. South Alabama ended its season with an 8-10-3 record.
Thursday is a scheduled off day for the remaining teams in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. MT and No. 3 seed FIU face off in a rematch on Friday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.
After one of its best seasons in school history, the MTSU soccer team heads into the postseason this week.
The Blue Raiders joined seven other teams from the Sun Belt Conference in Mobile, Ala., for the 2012 tournament, which started Wednesday.
The Blue Raiders’ first-round opponent in the single elimination tournament is the host school, South Alabama and inside its pitch nicknamed, “The Cage.”
Last week, MTSU ended the regular season with a 1-1 draw at home against Western Kentucky.
The result earned them a three-way share of the SBC regular season title with North Texas and Florida International.
Coming into the tournament, the Blue Raiders earned the No. 2 seed with a final record of 13-4-1, 8-1-1. Head coach Aston Rhoden looks at this tournament as a fresh start for MTSU.
“We look at the postseason as the start of a new season for us, so our mindset is one of learning from our victories, as well as our defeats during the regular season to ensure we are ready for the postseason,” Rhoden said.
MTSU’s first round matchup is against South Alabama, the No. 7 seed. The match was played on Wednesday evening, but results were unavailable by press time.
The Lady Jaguars finished the regular season with a record of 8-9-3 (3-5-2), but it was a close match when these two teams last met on Oct. 14.
During the match, South Alabama jumped out to an early 1-nil advantage in the 40th minute after a goal from 40 yards out by Clarissa Hernandez.
The second half belonged to MTSU, including two goals in 25 seconds by Allison Stallard and former Siegel star Tori Hawkins to put them ahead for good.
South Alabama had a chance in the final seconds to tie the score and send it to extra time, but the ball went wide of the net. The Blue Raiders hung on for the win, and Rhoden expects the same type of play against South Alabama in this meeting.
“This will be a tough match for us as (South Alabama) is a very strong team at home,” Rhoden said. “We had to come from behind to beat them in the regular season, so I expect an even tougher match on their home field.”
All season, the Blue Raiders have been known for his offensive firepower.
At one time, MTSU was ranked No. 1 in the nation in goals per game, now it has dropped to No. 3 in the same stat averaging 3.12 goals per game.
Those goals have come off the foot of several players; however, most of them have come from Paige Goeglein. She leads the SBC and ninth in the nation with 14 goals on the season.
Eight of them have been game-winners, which ranks her first in the nation in that category.
If the Blue Raiders won last night, it would face the winner of the FIU and Troy in the semifinals tomorrow evening. A loss ends MTSU’s season.
The final game of the SBC tournament is Sunday at 1 p.m. All matches during the tournament will be played in Mobile. The SBC tournament champion gets an automatic berth into the upcoming NCAA women’s soccer tournament.
Rhoden said winning the conference tournament again would mean a great deal to the Blue Raider program.
“Winning a Sun Belt title is always one of our goals each year so winning another title would be very special,” Rhoden said. “It would give us the opportunity to showcase our university, athletic department and team to a different audience, which would ultimately help us grow into a top level women’s soccer program.”
The SBC tournament will be broadcasted live and free on the Sun Belt Conference website, www.sunbeltsports.org.