Soccer Preview: Commodores open SEC Tournament against Mississippi State

Vanderbilt’s regular season came to a close with a home loss to Ole Miss. Now, the Commodores will move onto the postseason with a first-round SEC Tournament matchup against Mississippi State.

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Vanderbilt soccer loses Senior night to Ole Miss in overtime. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

Simon Gibbs, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt soccer’s regular season came to a close on Saturday, Nov. 7 with a 2-1 overtime loss to Ole Miss. Now, the Commodores embark on a new journey, as they move on to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Tournament; head coach Darren Ambrose can only hope the postseason looks better than the team’s 4-4 season to-date.

“We made some mental mistakes six minutes apart,” Ambrose said of their last loss. “I thought we were excellent for the duration of the game. Overall, we carried the possession for the most part. I felt like we could have been two goals up by then at least. And unfortunately, we made real, visual errors that cost us the game. And it’s unfortunate, because this year, that’s kind of bitten us once or twice.”

The Commodores struck first on senior night against Ole Miss, with defender Myra Konte finding the back of the net nine minutes into the contest. Konte’s goal was her second of the season, and came off a corner kick with multiple deflections. She was able to fight for possession and ultimately beat goalkeeper Ashley Orkus for the lone goal of the game’s first 85 minutes.

In the 86th minute, however, just four-plus minutes away from a victory, the Commodores conceded the equalizer, sending the game into extra time. Four of Vanderbilt’s eight contests this season have gone into extra time, with two of those needing two overtime periods to decide a winner.

Just two minutes into extra time, Ole Miss forward Channing Foster was able to find the back of the net for the game-winning goal.

The Commodores fell to .500 with the loss, good for a seventh seed in the SEC Tournament. They’ll face the 2-3-3 Mississippi State Bulldogs, a tenth seed, in their first postseason matchup of 2020.

“I think you go into this one game at a time,” Ambrose said of the SEC Tournament, knowing his team needs just four wins to capture their first SEC Tournament victory since 1994. “You can make plans toward your second game, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t win the first game. Every ounce of energy has to go into planning and preparation for this game; there will be a little bit of intensity going into it.”

Coach Ambrose entered this season, his sixth at the helm of the program, with a 61-33-10 record; for his team to finish the regular season at just .500 is certainly an anomaly, as they have not dropped to .500 since the 9-9-1 season in 2016.

But 2020 is different—the first season in which the Commodores faced an abbreviated, conference-only schedule has shown their will to compete.

“They’re as competitive a group of people as you’ll find in any sport. This group wants to win, they hate losing,” Ambrose said. “You do start to scratch your head a little bit after four overtime games where we’ve lost four games by a goal and three of those on set pieces and free kicks [or] corners. But they will grow from it.”

Their first round contest features the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team the Commodores have not yet faced this season. Ambrose recognized that the Bulldogs are well-coached and should provide an exciting matchup.

“They’ll be very organized,” he said. “I’m sure [head coach] James Armstrong will have them ready to go. They’ve made big strides in the year and a half he’s been there. And I think every game in Orange Beach [the home of the SEC Tournament] is usually an exciting game to watch, and I’m sure our game will be no different.”

As Ambrose alluded, Armstrong, the current head coach of the Mississippi State program, was hired on Jan. 18, 2019 after serving as an assistant coach at Auburn for six seasons. Armstrong took over a struggling program; prior to his hiring, the Bulldogs went 5-21-5 in conference play over the course of six seasons. Now, he has brought them to a 5-7-6 conference record in two seasons, showing signs of improvement.

Mississippi State presents a challenge in its goalkeeping, as freshman Maddy Anderson has routinely kept the Bulldogs in some close matchups. When asked how to gameplan for Anderson, Ambrose seemed confident in his team’s ability to finish despite the excellent goalkeeping.

“You don’t go into that with ‘Hey, this goalkeeper does this and that.’ The goalkeeper is the goalkeeper. If you finish and shoot properly and pick your spots and technically execute it, it shouldn’t really matter who’s in goal,” he said. “We’ve created chances. And again, we scored some, and we obviously know that we’ve missed chances, but you don’t stop doing those things.”

Mississippi State also features a pair of dynamic forwards in Onyi Echegini and Monigo Karnley, each of whom have netted a pair of goals this season. While they figure to lead the Bulldogs’ attack, Ambrose remains confident—not just in his team’s ability, but in their experience, as many of the upperclassmen were a part of the record-breaking 2018 team that won the SEC regular season crown.

“[The older players] have been to Orange Beach. It’s something that’s become regular for this program in the last six-or-so years,” he said. “I think they’re not overrode by the occasion; I think they know what to expect…I think you’re going to have a lot of nerves, but this group is seasoned. They know what to expect, and they’ve been there.”

The Commodores kick-off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Orange Beach, Alabama for their first SEC Tournament game of 2020 on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 12:00 p.m. CST.