Vanderbilt Soccer bows out of SEC tournament in heartbreaking fashion

After winning a thrilling quarterfinals match against No. 4-seeded Arkansas, the Commodores fell to No. 1-seeded Alabama on a last-minute winner.

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Ophelia Lu

Raegan Kelley shielding the ball from Mississippi Bulldog, as photographed on Oct. 23, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu)

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor

Coming off of an impressive 11-3-3 regular season, Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament run came to an end on Thursday, Nov. 3, as the Commodores fell to No. 1-seeded Alabama 2-1 in the semifinals of the tournament. Vanderbilt won their quarterfinal matchup against No. 4-seeded Arkansas in penalty kicks but fell victim to a 90th minute winner in their second game. After a strong regular season and competitive showing in the tournament, the Commodores will hope to be rewarded with an at-large bid for the 2022 DI Women’s College Cup.

Entering the tournament as the No. 5 seed, Vanderbilt was able to avoid the play-in matches, meaning their first game came in the quarterfinals stage where they would meet No. 4 Arkansas. The Commodores started off the match on the wrong foot, as they conceded a penalty in just the sixth minute to find themselves trailing, 1-0. Despite growing into the game after the early goal, the Commodores could not find their equalizer and went into the halftime break still trailing.

Vanderbilt seemed to come out of the break with a new energy, with the Commodores instituting a high press as the minutes ticked down. The consistent pressure earned Vanderbilt a corner in the 70th minute, which proved to be exactly what the team needed to get back in the game. With an inswinging cross, midfielder Abi Brighton lofted a dangerous ball towards the back post that caused confusion amongst the Razorback defense. Striker Peyton Cutshall capitalized on the opportunity, rising above her defender and directing her header into the top left corner to equalize for Vanderbilt. After a half in which they accumulated seven shots, the Commodores were finally back in the game.

After a largely quiet remaining 10 minutes and overtime period, the Commodores and the Razorbacks found themselves knotted at one and heading to penalty kicks. After missing one penalty kick each, the teams headed into the sixth round of the shootout tied at 4-4. For Vanderbilt, it was its keepers’ time to shine. Despite not playing in regular time or overtime, junior Kate Devine stepped up to the spot for the Commodores. With composure, Devine hammered an unsavable shot into the top left corner to give the Commodores the lead. After a great six-save performance, Sara Wojdelko had one more in her, as the Vanderbilt keeper guessed correctly on Arkansas’s ensuing shot and sent Vanderbilt to the semifinals. 

Coming off of the thrilling victory, the Commodores began their semifinal match against No. 1 Alabama looking inspired from the night before. The Commodores’ energy translated to results in the 15th minute, where they scored to take the early lead. After being played down the left side of the box, captain Raegan Kelley stopped and placed a perfect cross to the back post, where she found a cutting Cutshall. For the second time in as many games, Cutshall was clinical with her ensuing header, and Vanderbilt took the early 1-0 lead. The assist was Kelley’s 10th of the season, and the midfielder became only the seventh player in program history to reach that mark. 

Despite taking the early lead, the Commodores soon found trouble dealing with the Crimson Tide’s attack. Just minutes later, Alabama would equalize with a well-worked goal to erase the Commodore’s lead. Alabama’s relentless pressure would persist for the rest of the first half, but Vanderbilt was able to hold onto their lead heading into halftime.

Alabama came out of the intermission firing, but the Commodores were able to stay level thanks to a four-save performance in the half from Wojdelko. In the second half alone, Vanderbilt was outshot 13-0 and were stifled by Alabama’s defensive line. Yet, with four saves in the second half alone, Wodjelko was able to keep the Commodores up until the very end.

Unfortunately, disaster struck for Vanderbilt in the 90th minute. After a through ball was knocked in the direction of Alabama’s striker, Vanderbilt defender Abena Aidoo and the striker made contact and fell in the box. With a swift decision, the referee decided on a questionable penalty kick decision, much to the dismay of head coach Darren Ambrose and the Commodores. With just 39 seconds remaining, Alabama converted the penalty kick and ended the Commodores’ tournament run. 

“Games should not be influenced this way in this day and age,” Ambrose said, sharing his frustrations with the late call after the game in a since-deleted tweet

For now, the Commodores’ fate hangs in the balance. Despite not securing a conference championship, a strong regular season and postseason appearance may be enough to earn them one of 33 at-large bids for the 2022 DI Women’s College Cup. That decision will be made at the NCAA Selection Show on Monday, Nov. 7 at 2:30 p.m. CST.