Vanderbilt Soccer learning from 2017, staying focused in second round of NCAA Tournament

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Vanderbilt Soccer learning from 2017, staying focused in second round of NCAA Tournament

The Vanderbilt Commodores win 4-0 at home, on November 10th, 2018. Photo by Brent Szklaruk.

The Vanderbilt Commodores win 4-0 at home, on November 10th, 2018. Photo by Brent Szklaruk.

The Vanderbilt Commodores win 4-0 at home, on November 10th, 2018. Photo by Brent Szklaruk.

The Vanderbilt Commodores win 4-0 at home, on November 10th, 2018. Photo by Brent Szklaruk.

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Last season, Vanderbilt Soccer upset the fourth-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time that the Commodores had made it past the first round since 1998.

It wasn’t a normal occurrence, and the team had a hard time adjusting to this new reality.

“I know after we beat Ohio State, everyone was kind of like ‘Oh shoot, we’re still playing. Cancel your flights home for Thanksgiving,’ said redshirt freshman forward Haley Hopkins. “It was kind of a dreary cloud over our heads thinking we had to stay instead of the excitement that we get to play a second-round team for the first time in a long time in program history.”

This time around, Vanderbilt is facing another second-round road trip in the NCAA Tournament, but this time they head to Waco, Texas to take on second-seeded Baylor on Friday night at 7 PM CT. The Commodores have already made plenty of history this season, as they won the SEC regular season title for the first time since 1994 and hosted an NCAA Tournament game on campus for this first time in over a decade.

But unlike last season, the Commodores are anything but content.

“They want to be better than last year’s team, and I love that about them,” head coach Darren Ambrose said. “I’ve got the sense as we’ve gone through the year that when these guys put their minds to something and decide that’s what they want to do, it brings out something extra in them. I think the motivation is there.”

“I don’t think that we’re sitting here saying ‘Great job everybody, we’ve won the SEC, what a great year. We hosted the game and we won it, we’re done.’ I don’t think that’s the case. I think that’s yesterday’s news for this group. I think they’re more focused on now. There’s still an opportunity to do something else that’s different. That is genuinely the difference in the attitude this year.”

According to Ambrose, that newfound attitude started right after Vanderbilt lost to Santa Clara in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“Last year, a lot of this team was involved in losing in the second round,” he said. “As difficult and as tired as we were after the game, there were genuine moments of recognition of ‘Wow, what would it have been like to be in the Sweet Sixteen?’ This year, that’s the goal.”

It also helps that the team’s travel schedule has been considerably lighter during an extremely busy part of the semester. Last year, the team spent an entire week in Orange Beach, Alabama for the SEC Tournament, then traveled seven hours to Columbus, Ohio for their first round game before making another seven-hour trek to South Carolina the following weekend for the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

This time, their stay in Orange Beach was cut short and the Commodores got to host the first round at home. That has helped the team buy into the excitement of postseason soccer.

“We’re definitely excited to go to Waco,” Hopkins said. “There’s something different about playing in the NCAA Tournament where we’re not playing the same SEC teams every year. It’s against an opponent we’ve never played before and we don’t really know much about them except for what we’ve seen in film and scouting reports. There’s much more of an excitement of going to play them than there has been.”

Vanderbilt enters the second round with a newfound swagger after snapping a two-game losing streak with a 4-0 win over Murray State in the first round. In 2017, the Commodores narrowly escaped Columbus with a 2-1 win thanks to a last-minute goal by Stephanie Amack.

A big drubbing at home is just what the doctor ordered for Vanderbilt.

“We had so many chances in the last two games before Murray State and just weren’t able to finish off of them,” said defender Nia Dorsey. “Being able to put four in the back of the net was just a huge confidence booster. It was super exciting and fun and we were back to our normal selves.”

When the Commodores take the field on Friday night in Waco, they’ll be looking for the same effort that got them to this point in the season. They’ll also be looking forward to getting at least one more game in the postseason, even if it means a little last-minute changing of plans.

“I think this year there’s definitely more anticipation seeing how far we can go in it,” Hopkins said. “I know that the entire team would be completely okay with being in the Elite Eight and not going home for Thanksgiving, so it’s definitely a great feeling.”

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