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USU Soccer Team Headed to NCAA Tourney
  • USU beats No. 19 Denver in WAC tournament final
By Jason Turner | Herald Journal

It was a fairy tale ending for the Aggies in their final season in the Western Athletic Conference.

Utah State went ahead on an own goal in the fourth minute and was able to make that early lead hold up in a 1-0 victory over No. 19 Denver in the championship match of the WAC Soccer Tournament in front of a hearty crowd of 1,109 Sunday afternoon at Bell Field.

With the victory — the program’s first ever against a Top 25 team — the Aggies (13-2-6) secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

“To be able to do it on our home field in front of all these fans, all our family — we had a huge turnout today and we honestly can’t believe the support we received — and to be able to come away with a win means the world to us,” said standout USU defender Natalie Norris, who was selected as the MVP of the tourney. “We can’t even put it into words.”

Indeed, it was one of the biggest home crowds USU has ever competed in front of, with several of those supporters being fellow Aggie athletes. In the Aggies’ eight seasons in the WAC, they only lost one match at Bell Field, and that trend continued against a Denver (15-2-4) side that hadn’t tasted defeat since a season-opening loss to Colorado College on Aug. 17.

“That was just awesome to be able to win that on our home field and with so many fans. The fans were incredible today, and we made that early goal stick,” USU head coach Heather Cairns said. “And I thought both teams after that had chances to score, and we were just lucky we kept them off the board.”

The own goal was set up when Norris served a deep corner ball to Kendra Pemberton down the left flank. Pemberton dribbled to the end line and crossed the ball hard and on the ground inside the 6-yard box, where a Denver defender mistouched it into the back of the net while being pressured by Aggie forward Jennifer Flynn.

“I feel so bad for that girl,” Norris said. “I can’t imagine what it feels like to be in her shoes. And they played an amazing game other than that, but we put the pressure on (on that play), we were able to get that one goal and that’s all it took.”

USU, unbeaten in its last 11 matches, had to survive some scary moments in the second half en route to snapping Denver’s school-record 19-match unbeaten streak.

“We did what we needed to do in the second half,” Denver head coach Jeff Hooker said. “We created chances, it’s just ... every bounce spun the wrong way and Kaitlin Bast had a left-footed turn in the first half that was going in, (but) that got deflected.

“They just seemed to get a piece of everything, and we couldn’t quite get shots on goal and get just enough room and space. It was just disappointing we couldn’t score today. We had to score to win, and we didn’t.”

Indeed, the Aggies needed some desperate defending to keep the Pioneers (15-2-4) off the scoreboard, particularly early in the second half. On two occasions, USU’s Jackie Tillotson blocked shots from point-blank range by WAC Offensive Player of the Year Kristen Hamilton.

Simply put, Tillotson, a defensive midfielder who played the role of a fifth defender for much of the second half, came up huge for the top-seeded Aggies.

“It’s super exciting for me,” said Tillotson, who played the full 90 minutes Sunday. “Obviously, I mean, I was in the right place at the right time. Obviously, without my team I couldn’t have done it. (My teammates) had some awesome clearances, and I was just lucky enough to be there.”

Denver is arguably the best possession-oriented team USU has played all season long — even possibly better than No. 4 BYU — but the Aggies did an excellent job of clogging the midfield in the first half and disrupting the Pioneers’ offensive flow.

It showed as the Aggies limited the second-seeded Pioneers to four first-half shots — only one of which was on goal. USU only attempted four shots in the opening half, as well, but had some good scoring chances.

Lexie Morgan, for one, had a wide-open shot from 13 yards out after tracking down an Ambryn McCallson pass into space, but the junior misfired wide right. A few minutes later, Morgan was taken off the pitch with what is feared to be a blown out left knee.

The Aggies had some reasonably good scoring opportunities in transition after halftime, but the Pioneers dominated the possession battle. Denver played a more direct style of soccer in the second half, and the adjustments nearly paid off.

“Really pleased in the first half and then second half, we did, we hung on a little bit,” said Cairns, whose program has won at least a share of four of the last five regular season WAC titles. “We did have opportunities on counter attacks that we didn’t quite put away. ... But that’s the beauty of soccer is sometimes it just comes down to one play.”

Denver was much more dangerous when it played balls to feet, because USU center backs Taryn Rose and Norris dominated the 50-50 balls in the air. Additionally, Cairns was a bit disappointed her side didn’t kill the clock a little better late in the second half.

Flynn, who gave the Pioneers fits all match long, was selected to the all-tourney team, as were fellow Aggies Ashlyn Mulford (goalkeeper), Tillotson and Rose.

USU became the first team to capture back-to-back WAC Tournament championships since then-member SMU won four titles in a row from 2001-04.

USU and Denver shared the regular season WAC title with identical league records of 6-0-2. The two squads played to a scoreless draw Sept. 30 in Denver.

The Aggies will find out who they will play, when and where, during today’s NCAA Selection Show, which will be streamed live at 2:30 p.m. at NCAA.com. The Pioneers, who have an RPI of 34, have a legitimate chance of receiving an at-large bid to the field of 64, but Hooker isn’t banking on it. Denver has wins over four teams in the RPI top 80 in Portland (RPI of 17), UC Irvine (59), Kansas (64) and Colorado (79).

“For us and not being in a power conference, if they want to find a way to keep you out they do,” Hooker said. “... We had 19 wins two years ago (and), you know, they told us we didn’t have a top 50 win. Well, now we have a top 50 win, and we’ll see what happens now.”
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