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College soccer: Catawba women return to D2 regionals

Indians earn second straight trip to Division II regionals

Nick Brown, Catawba women’s soccer coach

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — When Catawba’s women’s soccer team fell on Nov. 9 at home to eventual champion Lincoln Memorial in the first round of the South Atlantic Conference Tournament, it looked like the Indians might be putting their uniforms in storage.

“We were all upset,” said Catawba forward Maddie Capel,  who has scored a team-high five goals.  “We had that awful feeling you get when you lose — and we don’t ever want to feel it again.”

But a team that has had zero luck when it comes to injuries, finally caught some breaks. Catawba is back in the Southeast Regional for the second straight season. The Peach Belt Conference and Conference Carolinas tournaments went exactly the way Catawba needed them to go.

“We couldn’t have underdogs winning those tournaments and getting automatic berths in the regional,” Catawba head coach Nick Brown said. “Top seeds had to win.”

They did — barely. Eight days after Catawba’s setback at Frock Field, regular-season champ Mount Olive beat Belmont Abbey, 2-1, in the Conference Carolinas championship game, when a win by Belmont Abbey would have meant an automatic berth for the Crusaders.

Fate took a hand down in Georgia on Sunday, where a girl from Salisbury that Catawba tried to recruit, Gray Stone graduate Annie Habeeb, scored in overtime to lift top-seeded Flagler to 1-0 victory over upstart Clayton State, the No. 6 seed. A Clayton State victory would’ve meant an automatic berth for the Lakers.

Even after those favorable results were official, the Indians had to sit around, cross their fingers and hope. It was tough to focus on anything else going on in their lives.

“Everything was up in the air for us,” senior defender Julia Hayes said.

“The wait from those games on Sunday to the selections on Monday was so incredibly long,” added Catawba senior defender Bree Roberts. “It didn’t feel like a day. More like a year.”

Catawba knew it had a shot once Mount Olive and Flagler held serve in their respective tournaments, but it was still pins-and-needles time for Brown and the Indians as many of them gathered to watch the announcement of the tournament field on NCAA.com on Monday night. That’s when it became official. Catawba, seeded eighth in the eight-team Southeast Regional, was headed to St. Augustine, Fla., to take on Flagler, the top-seeded host team.

“We got in the car, we turned up the music and we screamed,” Roberts said with a laugh.

Catawba broke a 10-year regional drought last season, traveled to Carson-Newman for the first round and lost, 3-0. Now Catawba has qualified for the regional in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05. Four of the eight teams in the regional will be from the SAC. That gives the Indians some confidence.

“I think there’s definitely a different feeling this year than last,” said Brown, who is in his fifth year as Catawba’s head coach. “We were excited to be there last year. This time, I think there’s a feeling of belonging in the regional. I’m pleased we made it because this team, with all that we battled through, earned it. These girls deserved it. I think it came down to us and Columbus State and Queens, and Queens and Columbus State beat us, but, fortunately, the at-large selections were based on the overall body of work.”

Roberts said this team has been the mentally toughest of her four years.

“We used to go to an overtime period and not have that energy we needed,” Roberts said. “It was like, ‘Ah, man, overtime.’ But this year it’s been, ‘All right, it’s overtime, let’s go do it. Winning in overtime is going to make it mean even more.'”

Brown said the Indians  have lost eight potential starters to injury,  including four regulars from last season’s team. West Rowan grad Lejla Mehmedovic was starting when she was injured. Two more of the Indians’ key recruits, Helen Summerell, who broke many Iredell high school records, and Emily Marcincavage, have been on the shelf all season.

“We lost a lot of important players,” Summerell said. “But this team has never stopped working.”

There have been concussions, ACLs, severe ankle sprains. You name it.

“Every time they had a fallen teammate, they hated it, but you have to keep going no matter what, and these girls have done that,” Brown said. “I’m incredibly proud of the season they’ve had.”

Catawba has put together a  remarkable season, under the circumstances.  The Indians went 11-3-3. In the SAC, Catawba lost only once, 1-0 to Queens, and finished 6-1-3. The Indians  officially finished fourth in the SAC standings, but it was an awfully close fourth. Catawba didn’t lose to any of the teams that finished higher.

Catawba didn’t score a lot goals (29), but it allowed fewer (15). Catawba posted eight shutouts. The Indians beat SAC regular-season champ Lenoir-Rhyne, 4-3, in a game that several players agreed was the most exciting of the season. There was a 1-1 tie with Carson-Newman on Senior Night (Capel scored the goal) and a scoreless tie with Wingate to close the regular season.

“Three cross bars were the difference for us this season,” Brown said. “Two in the tie with Wingate, one in the tie with Newberry. If those crossbars are goals, those are wins instead of ties and we finish in first place.”

Catawba has standout players such as junior midfielder Jovona Sanchez, a first-team All-SAC pick who has three goals and seven assists, second-team All-SAC goalkeeper Shelby Thompson and Katie Beck, the defensive anchor who was named SAC Defensive Player of the Year. Senior forward Shelby Vasich was another second-team All-SAC choice, but she was the latest Indian to be stricken by the injury bug.

“Those are special players and accolades are always nice,” Brown said. “But without a lot of people doing their jobs, without a lot of people contributing, accolades don’t happen. Even if teams try to take Jovona away, we feel like we have others who can get it done.”

The Indians will start their long trip, by bus, today at 1o a.m. It’s 460 miles from Salisbury to St. Augustine, Fla.

There are all kinds of storylines. Catawba will be playing against Habeeb, the Salisbury girl who is one of the top scorers for Flagler. Not only that, but one of Catawba’s key defenders, senior Elena Sopranzi, will be going back to play in her hometown.

And there’s something else.

“For the seniors, when we were freshman, our first Catawba game was at Flagler,” Hayes said. “We lost (3-2), but we’ve been down there before, so we have that experience going for us, and we’ve come a long way since then. This team has gotten a lot closer. We do a lot of things together.”

Catawba also lost to Flagler at home in 2017.

Flagler (19-0-1) is ranked third nationally, is the more explosive, healthier team and will be playing on its home pitch, but Catawba’s defense has managed to put the brakes on just about everyone.

•••

NOTES: Southeast Regional games are being played at two sites — in St. Augustine, Fla., and in Hickory. On Friday in St. Augustine, fourth-seeded Lincoln Memorial takes on No. 5 UNC Pembroke at 3 p.m., while Catawba battles Flagler at 6 p.m. The winners advance to a 2 p.m. meeting on Sunday. In Hickory, No. 2 Lenoir-Rhyne plays No. 7 Wingate and No. 3 North Georgia plays No. 6 Mount Olive. The sub-regional winners meet in national quarterfinals in early December.  The semifinals and championship games will take place Dec. 12 and 14 at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh. … Catawba will get back one injured player for Friday’s game. Sarah Bissett, a starter who is from Florida, has been cleared after going through concussion protocol.

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