By Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – Entering the 2012 campaign, the Auburn soccer team knew it would have to compensate for the loss of four graduating seniors from its 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship team, including multi-time All-American Katy Frierson.
The growing pains were apparent early in the season.
By the time the Tigers had completed four conference matches on Sept. 23, their record stood at 5-6 overall and 1-3 in league play. But Auburn came on strong, winning four of its next five matches and six of nine to finish the regular season with a 7-6 SEC mark.
“This team, in particular, we were a young team,” Auburn head coach Karen Hoppa said. “We lost a lot of talent from last year, but we got better as the season went on. I think we’re playing our best soccer right now.”
Auburn midfielder Maddie Barnes, who had the first of the Tigers’ two goals against Texas A&M, agrees, saying her team is peaking at the right time.
“That’s the story of our team,” Barnes said. “We had a slow start and every game we got better and better leading up to now. It’s the perfect time to be playing good.”
For the second consecutive year, the Tigers entered the SEC Tournament as an underdog. For the second straight season, Auburn is back in the SEC Tournament Championship game.
A year ago, as the tournament’s No. 7 seed, Auburn completed a magical run to the first-ever SEC Tournament Championship in program history. This season, the sixth-seeded Tigers have positioned themselves to defend their crown after edging third-seeded Tennessee in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals and knocking off second-seeded Texas A&M in the semifinals on Friday.
“Last year was so special winning it for the first time in school history and being the first SEC West team to win it,” Hoppa said. “We never dreamed that we’d be back here again and get the opportunity to defend that title. We really had to try and make sure that the team focused on one game at a time and now we’ve got a shot at it on Sunday.”
Senior Auburn goalkeeper Amy Howard, who came up with nine clutch saves in her team’s win against Texas A&M, is looking to cap her senior season with a second consecutive tournament title.
“It’s unbelievable,” Howard said Friday. “I’m still trying to take it all in. Last year was awesome and, this year, we’re just trying to make new memories with another team. As a senior, I’m just so happy to be in it and be able to play for another championship.”
Auburn (12-9-1) will square off with top-seeded Florida (16-4-1) in Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. CT Championship at the Orange Beach SportsPlex. The match will be televised live on ESPNU.
Florida head coach Becky Burleigh knows that in order to beat the Tigers, the Gators must be at the top of their game.
“Auburn is certainly a very good team,” Burleigh said. “I’m excited to face them again because, obviously, it’s a re-match of last year’s final. Certainly, they did a terrific job against Texas A&M; we watched that whole game. They were great defensively and opportunistic in finishing their chances. They didn’t have that many chances, but the chances that they did have, they really finished. I expect it to be a battle.”
The primary challenge facing Auburn over the next 24 hours will be its ability to bounce back from its games earlier in the tournament. The energy that the Tigers expended in their 110-minute bout with Tennessee and their intense meeting with Texas A&M is a concern to Hoppa.
“The biggest thing is to recover because we exhausted a ton of energy in this game,” Hoppa said. “You always do in a 90-minute game, but to play a full overtime on Wednesday and then it’s hard to defend and we defended a lot in this game. The biggest objective between now and Sunday is to try to get us recovered.”