BUIES CREEK, N.C. – A second-half, two-goal salvo earned the Bears a piece of Mercer women’s soccer history, as their 2-0 win over Campbell gives the team its first-ever Atlantic Sun regular season championship. Olivia Tucker once again proved the hero for the Bears, heading in the decisive goal from a Meghan Castlado corner in the 56th minute: her second straight game-winner and third goal in as many matches.
Castaldo would then seal the points with an unstoppable blast in the 66th minute as Mercer stretched its lead in the A-Sun standings to an insurmountable five-point advantage over second-placed Kennesaw State.
“This is really the culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication by our players,” Mercer head coach Grant Serafy said. “It really means a lot to this team, not only to this current group of players, but also all our former players, parents, and everyone associated with the program. I couldn’t be prouder.”
The victory was also highly significant for Serafy himself, who becomes the all-time winningest coach in program history with his 39th career win, springing him past Ian Hayley in the school’s record books.
Despite his achievement, Serafy was quick to put the focus back on his team. “It’s nice to accomplish this, but for me, it’s about winning a championship,” he said.
Knowing what was on the line, Mercer announced their attacking intentions early, as senior Erin Theobald found space for herself on the left side of the box, though her cracking shot found the netting on the wrong side of the post.
Tucker would then call Campbell keeper Jamie Panfil into action; the holding midfielder eventually getting on the end of a Heather Manting free kick bouncing around in the box. Her sliding shot, however, was straight at Panfil from a tough angle on the left.
A clever flicked header from Meek then put Johnson clean through on goal, only for the Saint Peters, Mo. native to be thwarted by a late offsides flag.
Soon after, the flag stayed down on Johnson, who got in behind the Camels defense again. Running down the left, the sophomore forward attempted to pick out the far post with an outside-of-the-foot flick, but was denied by the fingertips of an advancing Panfil, who did well to collect the rebound as well.
It was backs to the wall stuff for the Camels, as Mercer sent in wave after wave of attack, and the Bears nearly broke through as Raschelle Riley went on a trademark rampaging run up of the left wing. The fullback’s cross found Tucker in the box, who spun past her marker with a deft first touch, only to be closed down by a vital last second tackle.
Mercer’s defense would need to be sharp soon after, however, as the Camels finally got their first shot on target midway through the first half. After some good work at the endline down the right, Olga Ekblom teed the ball up for Jenna Sullivan. Reigning A-Sun Defender of the Week Lizzy Shaughnessy, however, did well to block the shot down without testing Jean Worts.
The half finished with both teams even in possession. Vanessa Breslin and Katheryn Hurst linked up well in the Camels’ box to set up a scoring chance for Sara Elliot, whose left-footed shot was claimed by Panfil at her left-hand post. Worts then had to be alert to tip over a Hanna Salmen corner kick drifting back toward the net, as the first half ended scoreless.
Just after the restart, Castaldo came within inches of duplicating her heroics against Belmont, as she caught Panfil off her line with a well-weighted lob, only to see her shot land harmlessly on the roof of the net.
The breakthrough was coming, though, and it was no surprise who it came from. Tucker, who has scored big goals for the team all season, won a corner after being double-teamed down on the Camels’ endline. Meghan Castaldo whipped in a majestic inswinger from the resulting set piece, and when Pansil couldn’t get a touch as she came out to claim, Tucker was on hand to head home from close range.
It was a clinical finish from the freshman, and the team-best eighth goal in a sparkling first campaign with the Bears, one that surely now must result in first-team all-conference honors for the Peachtree City native.
“Olivia seems to play well when the team really needs it the most,” Serafy said afterwards, “and that’s the mark of a great player.”
Johnson nearly doubled the advantage immediately after, but saw her shot whistle just outside the near post after a mazy run up the left.
The Bears had their hosts on the ropes, however, and just 10 minutes later, Castaldo would seal the deal with a stunner. Latching onto a loose ball on the right hand side of the Camel box, the senior controlled with her first touch before sending a rocket up into the upper–left corner of the net, giving the Campbell keeper no chance.
Kacie Hudson would nearly add a third for the Orange and Black late on, though Panfil saved easily after the center back was unable to get enough power on shot from six yards out.
The only bit of drama remaining would be to see if the Bears would extend their shutout streak to five straight matches, which they did when Worts was on hand to save Caity Brown’s point blank header off a free kick. And as the clock struck zero, the team sprinted out to celebrate its first-ever A-Sun regular season title.
While acknowledging what the team has accomplished thus far, Serafy and the Bears still recognize that there is plenty more silverware to be handed out in 2008. “We probably won’t reflect on this too much,” Serafy said. “We still have a goal in mind, and that is taking the next step with this team and winning the A-Sun tournament.”
The Bears wrap up their 2008 regular season on the road against Kennesaw State on Wednesday. Mercer will then have next weekend off before heading back to Kennesaw for the Atlantic Sun championship, which will be held Nov. 5-8. Having sewn up the top spot, Mercer will get a first round bye, joining the tournament in the semifinal stage.