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