One title down, one more to go.
Having picked up the school’s first-ever Atlantic Sun regular season championship, the women's soccer team now turns its attention to the biggest prize of all: the Atlantic Sun tournament championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Bears will get their run at the Atlantic Sun Championship, hosted by Kennesaw State University, starting at 4 p.m. today with their semifinal match against Jacksonville. The Dolphins knocked off ETSU in penalty kicks in the first round of the Atlantic Sun Championship to set up a date with top-seeded Mercer.
Jacksonville’s win sets up a tricky tie for the Orange and Black tomorrow, as the Dolphins were one of just two conference teams to knock off the Bears in the regular season. A Katie Orr goal in the dying embers of the first half gave JU a 1-0 win in Macon on Oct. 5, albeit in somewhat fortuitous fashion. Mercer had two goals disallowed in the contest, and saw an Emerald Phillips effort crash back off the woodwork.
“Jacksonville played very well against us earlier this year, and probably deserved to win,” Mercer head coach Grant Serafy said. “They are a dangerous team with some creative midfielders, some good forwards that can score goals, and they are solid at the back as well. But the key is going to be our work rate and our spirit. We have got to we approach this game the same way we approach any other game. “
The Florida side survived a tense quarterfinal encounter with ETSU on Wednesday, as the Bucs found a late equalizer to cancel out Jelena Vrcelj’s 60th-minute opener. The match eventually made its way to penalty kicks, where Dolphins’ keeper Alexa Rooney saved the fifth and final spot kick from Jennifer Altimier
The double-overtime match and the emotional drain of the penalty shootout makes for a quick turnaround for Jacksonville heading into Thursday’s semifinal: 10 Jacksonville players stayed on the pitch for the entire 110 minutes of Wednesday’s contest.
“I am sure they will be up for it though, being a semifinal match and all,” Serafy said. “Adrenaline can carry you pretty far.”
Mercer, meanwhile, not only comes into the tournament with the benefit of a first-round bye, but also having won five of their last six matches. The Bears will rely heavily on their Atlantic Sun leading defense to carry them to the tournament title. Having conceded just 10 goals in 18 matches this season, including a school record 10 shutouts and holding the NCAA’s 11th-best GAA of 0.54, keeping clean sheets will be a top priority for the Orange and Black.
“Certainly we are a big believer in our defense,” Serafy said. “We got to put high pressure on them: they have dangerous forwards and are good on set pieces, so we’ve got to be sharp.”
Spearheading the Bears attack will be midfielder Olivia Tucker, who earned the A-Sun Freshman of the Year award and a second-team all-conference spot this season after leading the team with eight goals and 19 points. Tucker has scored the game-winning goal in each of the Bears last two victories, heading home the decisive strike against both ETSU on Oct. 19 and Campbell on Oct. 26.
Fellow midfielder Meghan Castaldo has also been in top form as of late, earning Atlantic Sun First Team honors for the second time in her career after chipping in two goals and a team-high six assists (tied for fifth-highest among all A-Sun players) for the Bears this season. Castaldo put the Orange and Black into the conference’s top spot for good with a brilliant match-winner against Belmont on Oct. 12, lobbing the Bruin keeper from 25 yards out.
The Atlanta native also scored a goal and assisted on another in the team’s 2-0 win over Campbell on Oct. 26: the win that clinched Mercer’s regular season crown.
The winner of tomorrow’s 4 p.m. semifinal showdown between Mercer and Jacksonville will advance to Saturday’s championship match, with kickoff in the final set for 6 p.m. All of Mercer’s matches at the Atlantic Sun Championship can be viewed on A-Sun TV via www.atlanticsun.org.
- www.mercerbears.com -