Vanderbilt soccer pushed Clemson to the brink on their home turf and nearly stole a first-round NCAA tournament victory. The Commodores were a penalty kick away from advancing after making each of their first four spot kicks and forcing a miss on one of Clemson’s. However, a crucial miss on a decisive penalty kick by midfielder Paola Ellis and a subsequent miss in the sixth round by midfielder Leila Azari won Clemson the shootout and ended Vanderbilt’s 2019 season.
Vanderbilt started the game brightly, outshooting Clemson four to two in the first 35 minutes and earning five corner kicks to Clemson’s zero. The Tigers seemed to have seized the momentum in the final 10 minutes of the first half, firing off four shots and holding Vanderbilt without a second-half shot until midfielder Raegen Kelley’s blocked shot in the 69th minute.
The game went to overtime after neither team could find a breakthrough. Vanderbilt outshot Clemson 5-3 in that span and had three of those shots hit the goalpost, including a 104th minute shot by midfielder Grace Jackson that hit the crossbar. Forward Maddie Elwell also had a dangerous shot cleared off the line by a Clemson defender just 10 seconds prior.
Perhaps the co-MVPs for the Commodores were goalkeepers Lauren Demarchi and Taiana Tolleson, who split duties by half, with Tolleson playing both overtimes and the penalty shootout as well, and combined for seven saves.
Both teams made each of their first three penalty kicks, and Clemson was the first to blink with a fourth-round shot by the Tigers’ Mariana Speckmaier saved by Tolleson. Vanderbilt’s forward Hannon Eberts made the follow-up shot to close out the fourth round and give the Commodores the chance to win the shootout 5-4 on their next shot. Clemson’s Mackenzie Smith made her fifth-round kick to keep the Tigers in the match, but Paola Ellis had her potentially game-winning shot saved, and the shootout rolled on.
After Clemson’s Patrice DiPasquale pushed her shot into the net off of Tolleson in the sixth round, Leila Azari’s kick directed to the left was parried away by Tigers goalkeeper Sandy MacIver for her second straight save. Clemson players ran onto the field to celebrate their 5-4 shootout victory.
Clemson’s shootout victory mirrored the last time the two teams met in 2006 in the NCAA tournament, in which the Tigers also won in penalties.
“I am proud of the season we had and how we have continued to show that this program is a contender every year,” head coach Darren Ambrose said after the game. “I am heartbroken for this group of girls. I thought they played very well and had the better of the chances. We’ve got to give credit to the Clemson goalkeeper for the saves she made tonight.”
Vanderbilt ended its season 14-5-2 and in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, having lost at Baylor in 2018 and against Santa Clara in 2017, both in the second round. Those 14 wins are their second-highest win total since 2005 and the third-highest win total in program history, behind their 16 wins in 2018 and 2005 and 17 wins in 1994 and 1998.
This was also one of Vanderbilt’s best defensive teams in program history, with their 10 shutouts tied for third-most and 13 goals allowed the second-fewest since the team was founded in 1993.
Vanderbilt soccer now says goodbye to seven seniors: goalkeepers Taiana Tolleson and Lauren Demarchi; defender Nia Dorsey; midfielders Grace Jackson and Caroline Saltmarsh; and forwards Kaylann Boyd and Hannon Eberts. Those seniors earned 52 career wins, a regular-season conference title in 2018, and a regular-season division title this year.
The Commodores now look ahead to their 2020 season, which will begin in August.