Vanderbilt soccer overcomes deficit, opens season with 3-2 win over Kentucky

After conceding two quick goals, the Commodores came out firing in the second half. Eventually, Haley Hopkins gave the Commodores a 3-2 win in the season opener.

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Hunter Long

Haley Hopkins faces off against a Kentucky defender in their 3-2 victory and season opener on Sunday, September 20, 2020. (Vanderbilt Athletics // Hunter Long)

Simon Gibbs, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt soccer opened its 2020 season on Sunday against the Kentucky Wildcats, a game in which both teams came out scoring in pairs. A couple of quick, first half goals by Kentucky put the Commodores down by two, but Vanderbilt—the reigning Southeastern Conference (SEC) East regular season champions—rapidly scored a couple of its own, before a Haley Hopkins header gave the Commodores a comeback 3-2 win.

The Commodores seemed to have control for the first few minutes of the game, registering four shots to Kentucky’s three and keeping the ball in its attacking third for a majority of the first ten minutes. But Kentucky’s goalkeeper, Brooke Littman, saved each shot with apparent ease.

“I think we should have had two or three goals in the first half,” Ambrose said, before crediting Littman for her impressive first half performance. “We knew Brooke [Littman] from recruiting a few years ago, and we knew she’s a good goalkeeper. She’s improved that position for them, and credit to her.”

Kentucky’s next two shot attempts, separated by a mere 46 seconds, both found the back of the net and gave the Wildcats a commanding first half lead. First, Wildcats’ forward Jordyn Rhodes collided with Vanderbilt’s goalkeeper, Sophie Guilmette, sending Guilmette to the ground just outside the box. Rhodes managed to push a meager shot toward the empty net before colliding with Vanderbilt’s Ella Shamburger, putting the Commodores down by one.

Seconds afterwards, though, the Wildcats—and Rhodes—struck again. Only this time, rather than a Commodore mishap conceding a goal, it was a well-placed assist by Marissa Bosco.

“I know it looks like a game of two halves from the scoresheet, but I think from a performance perspective, we were quite good in the first half. We made two mistakes in the wrong part of the field,” Ambrose said. “It’s tough for those kids, but they’ve got to own it and get better and learn from it. So I wasn’t unhappy at halftime, I thought we played well.”

The Commodores struggled to convert their performance to the scoreboard for the rest of the first half. Moments before the teams exited to the locker rooms for halftime, Madiya Harriott committed an unintentional hand ball, then booted the ball out of bounds in frustration, earning a yellow card.

“Until they unfortunately learn the hard way, which they just did, sometimes the message doesn’t go through,” Ambrose said of his team’s first half mistakes.

As Ambrose alluded, Vanderbilt learned from its mistakes. In the second half, the Commodores dominated not only from a performance perspective, but on the scoreboard, too.

Just over seven minutes after taking the field again, Vanderbilt found its stride. Freshman midfielder Amber Nguyen found Hopkins, Vanderbilt’s All-SEC star forward, in one-on-one coverage. Hopkins managed to cut the lead in half, as the Commodores trailed just 2-1 after her strike.

“The kid responds every time she’s challenged,” Ambrose said of Hopkins. “She’s just a winner. The word here is winner. She doesn’t know how to lose, she takes it personally.”

Sure, it wasn’t as quick as Kentucky’s two goals in one minute. But just around six minutes after Hopkins’ goal, Harriott made an excellent stop, gained possession in the attacking third and found senior midfielder Paola Ellis for a goal. The Commodores, previously trailing 2-0, had tied the game at two apiece with 30 minutes left to play.

The Commodores continued getting opportunities, with plenty more shots on goal stopped by Littman, before Hopkins delivered—again.

“Haley has matured in her finishing. She’s so dangerous coming off the corners, as you could see today,” Ambrose said. “She’s getting better and better every year.”

With ten minutes remaining, senior forward Leila Azari found Hopkins for a header, the eventual game-winning goal and her second of the contest, to put Vanderbilt up by a score of 3-2.

“We’re going to get better from this,” Ambrose said. “That’s the beauty of this: we were able to find a win, and we learned a lot—to be honest with you—that we didn’t know at 1:00 [p.m.] today.”

Vanderbilt (1-0) will travel to Knoxville next weekend, where they are scheduled to face Tennessee (0-1) on Sept. 27.