Halloween was a treat for the Murray State women’s soccer team as they capped off their regular season with a 1-0 victory over UT Martin Friday night in Martin, Tenn.
The two teams battled for positioning in the OVC, and the Racers grabbed the three seed in the tournament with their win. UT Martin’s loss forced them to settle for the four seed. Facing a team that hasn’t lost at home all season, the Racers executed strongly and earned a late-season road win.
“I thought it was probably one of our best performances all year,” said Head Coach Jeremy Groves. “We played probably the most people we’ve played all year, too. So I was just really, really happy. You know, the game didn’t really mean a whole lot. We were still going to have to play three games next week so I was a little bit shocked at how well we did play. Sometimes players kind of get that in their head and they might relax a little bit but I think we played really well. We beat a team that hasn’t been beat on their field all year.”
The game was a battle from the beginning as the teams were evenly matched. The highlight for the Racers was their defensive play.
Freshman goalkeeper Shelby Haworth made save after save and would eventually end the game with 11 total, earning her the OVC Goalkeeper of the Week award. The first half ended with the competitors tied 0-0.
The second half started in much the same way, but in the 59th minute the Racers found an opportunity and capitalized. Senior Pavlina Nepokojova received a pass from freshman Harriet Withers and struck the ball into the upper left corner of the net for the game’s only goal.
With the momentum of a 1-0 lead, Murray State only had to survive comeback attempts from UT Martin.
After struggling early in the season on the road, the Racers won their last three road games.
Their fate in the OVC Tournament will be decided this weekend as they travel to Southeast Missouri State.
Groves said he isn’t worried about his team’s road performance.
“We always knew we could do it,” Groves said. “I think early on we probably played some difficult teams. We knew we could do it and the St. Louis game was a big turnaround. We finally found that we could win on the road and then in our conference we’ve had some big games winning on the road so, you know, it’s a neutral game on Thursday. Every game is going to be tough in the tournament so there is no real advantage for either team.”
Withers agreed with her coach’s sentiment.
“Our attitude has always been good,” Withers said. “I think now we are just a lot more excited and determined. We’re ready to win, I guess. We’ve got confidence and I think it’s going to be fun. I think we’re all really looking forward to it.”
The Racers made their first OVC Tournament appearance since 2011 Thursday as they took on No. 6 Morehead State. Murray State defeated the Eagles earlier in the season 5-0 in one of its best performances of the year. Groves knows the tournament games will not be as easy as their first meetings with conference teams, however.
“They’re going to be gunning for us, I know that for sure,” Groves said. “If we take care of what we need to care of and we play like we did on Friday, then we’ll come out on top, I have no question about that. It’s all about how we do and how we come out and not really what they can do.”
The OVC Tournament will be played on a turf field, something the Racers are not used to. To prepare for the unusual terrain, the team practiced all week on Roy Stewart Stadium’s turf field.
“Obviously we’re a team that trains and plays on grass,” Groves said. “We’re just trying to get accustomed to the turf a little bit. It’s a different surface, it bounces a lot more. We’re trying to get more acclimated for the tournament on turf.”
The OVC Tournament is a new experience for many of these players, especially Withers. When asked how she was feeling going into the tournament, she brightened up immediately.
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” Withers said. “Every time I think about it I get butterflies, but I mean it’s the experience. Some of these girls haven’t even been and they’re seniors so being a freshman and being able to go is amazing. It’s definitely really exciting.”
The first round of the tournament started Thursday and will continue throughout the weekend. Today, the Racers face No. 2 SIUE at 4 p.m. at SEMO.
Story by Peter Northcutt, Sports writer