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    SEC Soccer At 20: Tournament History

    By: Brian Rice
    Twitter: @briancrice
    SEC Digital Network

    BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - As soccer in the Southeastern Conference celebrates its 20th season in 2012, so does the conference’s premier soccer event, the SEC Soccer Tournament.

    The 20th edition will be the largest ever, with 10 teams facing off over the course of seven days to determine who will have a pyramid trophy to punctuate a season of accomplishments. What kicked off with humble beginnings as a four-team event on campus at Vanderbilt University in 1993 will crown its 20th champion in front of a national television audience on ESPNU.

    The pitch at the tournament has been graced by national champions, Olympic medalists and World Cup champions. A year ago, all eight teams that took to the pitch in the event’s current home in Orange Beach, Ala. made the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.

    “It’s great,” said former Kentucky goalkeeper and 2006 SEC Tournament MVP Anne Ogundele. “It’s an area of seclusion to some degree, but it also allows us to stay on the beach and bond together. It’s really gorgeous with the grass that they have there. It is a really great place to play and a really fun environment. A lot of the locals came to the games. It’s very fun and entertaining to play in front of a group that’s not all your fans or not necessarily on your sde.”

    A Humble Beginning

    The first SEC Soccer Tournament kicked off in Nashville, Tenn. on Nov. 6, 1993. The event featured all four schools, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, that fielded women’s soccer programs.

    Because there were just four schools in the field, the Vanderbilt’s inaugural SEC soccer championship did not come with an automatic NCAA bid. The Commodores would have to wait until a year later, following their second consecutive title, to claim their first spot in the NCAA postseason.

    Kentucky would break Vanderbilt’s streak in 1995, knocking off VU in the semifinal, before defeating the second-year program from Alabama in the championship game. The Commodores gained revenge nine days later, knocking the Wildcats from the NCAA Tournament in the opening round in Lexington.

    “Those early days were a blast,” said former Alabama coach Don Staley. “Vanderbilt and Kentucky were ahead of the game at that time. Vanderbilt was a very skilled, technically sound, well-coached team. When you matched up against Kentucky and Warren Lipka, they had speed, size and battled you physically. Later on down the road, there were some incredible Becky Burleigh teams at Florida. They had speed, skill, finesse – they had it all. It was a lot of fun.”

    The league was up to 11 teams in 1995, including Florida, whose first round SEC Tournament loss would prove to be a significant moment for the Gator program.

    A Dynasty Born

    Why would anyone call an opening-round loss in a conference tournament a significant point for a program?

    From that moment, Florida went on a run that rivals some of the great postseason performances in all of collegiate sport.

    Florida defeated Tennessee, 3-0, to earn its first-ever SEC Tournament victory on Nov. 7, 1996.

    Three days later, the top-seeded Gators needed overtime to defeat Arkansas, 3-2, for their first SEC Tournament title. Each of the next five seasons, three competitors faced off against UF in the SEC Tournament, and each time the Gators left with the trophy.

    Six consecutive tournament championships started a run of nine-straight championship game appearances for Florida. Overall, the Gators have a league-high 13 appearances in the title match with nine victories.

    In 17 appearances in the event, UF has emerged victorious more than half the time. Over the same period, Florida has amassed 11 regular-season titles and won the SEC’s only soccer National Championship in 1998.

    “I look around the conference and when I was at Florida, our team, in particular, was a dominant team,” said former Florida standout and three-time Olympian Heather Mitts. “I have seen a lot of other SEC teams who maybe were not as strong then that are now dominating. All the SEC schools really do put a lot of focus on their female sports, and have allowed their soccer programs and all their female sports to grow.”

    A Challenger Emerges

    Florida carried a 20-match SEC Tournament winning streak into the 2002 Championship match against Tennessee.

    The Lady Volunteers had never won an SEC Tournament match until they knocked off Georgia and Kentucky to make the title game. UF had dominated the series between the two schools, with the lone UT victory having come a season earlier in a regular season meeting in Knoxville.

    The Gators jumped on the board first, scoring on their lone shot of the first half, a header from Crystal Frimpong 8:41 into the match. UT’s Jen Laughridge notched the equalizer late in the second half, sending the championship match to overtime for the third time in event history. The teams were held scoreless in the first overtime, before Keeley Dowling headed home a Sue Flamini pass with 1:02 remaining in the second OT to end Florida’s run and give Tennessee its first SEC soccer championship.

    The two teams would meet for the championship again each of the next two years, with Tennessee taking home the title on penalty kicks in 2003 and Florida winning with an overtime goal in 2004.
    The Lady Vols won tournament titles again in 2005 and 2008, with their total of four second only to the Gators. Tennessee and Florida have combined for 18 appearances in the championship match and 13 titles.

    Finding a Home

    As is the case for the conference tournament in most sports, the SEC Soccer Tournament spent the first decade of its existence rotating among campus sites.

    But in 2003, the SEC announced a five-year agreement to move the event to a neutral site, the Orange Beach SportsPlex in Orange Beach, Ala. The site has given the schools a yearly goal to shoot for and has proven to be a valuable asset for the Orange Beach-Gulf Shores area in early November.

    Since 2003, the tournament has only been held outside of Orange Beach once, in 2004, when the effects of Hurricane Ivan forced a move to Auburn, Ala., due to damage to the SportsPlex and accommodations that teams utilized in the Orange Beach area.  

    Parity has also proven evident in the SEC Soccer Tournament in recent years, as Kentucky went on a magical run to win the title in 2006 and South Carolina claimed its first-ever tournament title in 2009. Auburn won as the tournament’s No. 7 seed in 2011. More impressively, last season, each of the eight teams that advanced to Orange Beach was selected to the NCAA Tournament, proving the strength of the annual league event.

    “Soccer in the SEC is still fairly young,” said former Georgia letterwinner Stephanie Ransom. “The success that the SEC has had is just a testament to everything – all the players and coaches have put into it, the institutions and the SEC. It just continues to become more and more competitive every year that teams participate and it gives the SEC a national presence in soccer.”

    The 20th anniversary event kicks off with the new 10-team format on Mon., Oct. 29 with a pair of games matching the 7-10 and 8-9 seeds. Eight teams will celebrate Halloween with the second round on Wed., Oct. 31 before the semifinals on Fri., Nov. 2 and the championship match on Sun., Nov. 4.

    The championship will once again be televised by ESPNU, with the winner earning the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The week also features a clinic for area youth as well as a soccer festival and other fan and team events.

    All-Time SEC Tournament Champions
     

     

    Year Champion Site
    1993 Vanderbilt Nashville, Tenn.
    1994 Vanderbilt Fayetteville, Ark.
    1995 Kentucky Auburn, Ala.
    1996 Florida Lexington, Ky.
    1997 Florida Gainesville, Fla.
    1998 Florida Tuscaloosa, Ala.
    1999 Florida Nashville, Tenn.
    2000 Florida Athens, Ga.
    2001 Florida Baton Rouge, La.
    2002 Tennessee Oxford, Miss.
    2003 Tennessee Orange Beach, Ala.
    2004 Florida Auburn, Ala.
    2005 Tennessee Orange Beach, Ala.
    2006 Kentucky Orange Beach, Ala.
    2007 Florida Orange Beach, Ala.
    2008 Tennessee Orange Beach, Ala.
    2009 South Carolina Orange Beach, Ala.
    2010 Florida Orange Beach, Ala.
    2011 Auburn Orange Beach, Ala.