Appalachian State women’s soccer (9-7-2, 4-4-2 Sun Belt) opened up the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Wednesday as the No. 4 seed against Louisiana Lafayette (8-8-2, 4-4-2) in Foley, Alabama.
Just 10 days removed from a tournament clinching win over Sun Belt regular season conference champion South Alabama, App State heads to the tournament with confidence high after an up and down season.
Coming off of three straight wins, and wins in four of their last five games, the Mountaineers jumped from 11th place in the conference and on the outside looking in with only eight teams making the tournament, to clinching a spot and the No. 4 seed in just three weeks.
“The reality is that the stakes are completely different and nothing matters from the regular season,” head coach Sarah Strickland said. “We have to be the best team that we can be when the whistle blows and make sure that we represent App State women’s soccer the best we can.”
Facing off against UL Lafayette on Oct. 21 in Boone, the Mountaineers defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns 2-0, led by goals from seniors Jenn Bass and Jane Cline.
The women’s App State program has made great strides since joining the Sun Belt three years ago, going to the conference tournament in each of their first three seasons and advancing to the semifinals last season before being eliminated to rival and eventual tournament champion, South Alabama.
“I think it was awesome for us to make it to the semifinals last year but now we want to make it to the finals and win the final, that’s our mindset,” Cline said.
After scoring three goals last week including an overtime game winning goal over South Alabama to clinch a tournament spot, Cline was named the NCAA Women’s Soccer Player of the Week.
Announced as the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and all-conference first team after a career 2016 season scoring 11 goals, being responsible for 24 total points, 89 shots taken and accumulating for 1,419 minutes played this season, Cline has helped guide the team as the senior leader.
With six seniors for on the team still remembering a heartbreaking penalty kick defeat to South Alabama last season, the Mountaineers aren’t back entering the tournament as they know every game could be their last in the black and gold.
“It’s all on the line,” senior defender Carrie Taylor said. “We will never play soccer at this level again and I think we won’t take any of that for granted because it’s only here for so long.”
With that in mind, the competition in this Sun Belt conference has been very close throughout the season, including seeds No. 4-6 being tied and No. 4-8 just three points of each other.
“If you look at the conference tournament standings, [No. 1] South Alabama plays [No. 8] Troy and Troy beat South Alabama in the regular season,” Strickland said. “Each game is its own story here on out.”
Senior midfielder Jackie Nieradka, who has a solid season contributing for six points and contributing to many close wins, said the competition just makes the tournament that much more fun.
“I think it has been a lot better how competitive it is,” Nieradka said. “It’s nice when it’s not just one team ruling everything.”
The key for Appalachian to make a long tournament run is to stick what they are good at: playing fast and spreading out the opposing defense to create scoring opportunities.
Rolling with the momentum from the last couple of weeks and playing to their potential, the Mountaineers hope this is the year they can win their first Sun Belt championship.
“I think momentum is huge as far as going forward,” Cline said. “It just comes down to hard work and who is going step up for that game that day so that’s kind of exciting.”
The game for the Mountaineers is Wednesday at 5 p.m. on ESPN3.com. Round two takes place on Friday and the championship game is set for Sunday.
Story By: Adam Hothersall, Sports Reporter