Sept. 19, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - With four true freshmen and a redshirt freshman in the starting lineup, Auburn's soccer team has overcome a slow start to win three of its last four games. But things are about to get serious.
The Tigers, 3-3-1 after starting the season 0-2-1, open Southeastern Conference play against No. 19 Kentucky on Friday night at 7 at the Auburn Soccer Complex. For the freshman class, filled with highly recruited players, it will be a major step.
Junior Tori Ball, a captain along with seniors Maddie Barnes and Bianca Sierra, says words aren't enough. The freshmen will have to experience it for themselves.
"The intensity spikes up," Ball said. "Every game matters so much. In nonconference play they matter, but the SEC is different. Like Coach says, a tie on Friday night could decide whether you win the SEC or not. We've been trying to tell them, but nothing compares to actually playing in it."
The Tigers had won three straight before a 2-1 overtime loss to Long Beach State on Sunday. Head coach Karen Hoppa, in her 15th season, says she has seen substantial improvement. But she says much remains to be done.
"We've made a ton of progress since the beginning of the season," Hoppa said. "Our offense is better. We are better on the ball. We're creating more chances. We were really disappointed with the loss Sunday because we did enough to win the game. We just didn't put away our chances."
After a strong spring season and an impressive 4-1 exhibition victory over Memphis, Hoppa had her lineup almost set. But fate intervened. Senior Ashley Kotero and sophomore Alex Massey, expected to be the starting forwards, were lost for the season to knee injuries. It showed on the field in a scoreless tie with Clemson, a 4-1 loss at Florida State and a 1-0 loss at Samford.
"It was hard. It was frustrating," said Hoppa, who has taken seven consecutive Auburn teams to NCAA regionals. "The girls were working hard, but we just weren't playing well, weren't clicking. We get to a point against Memphis where we feel real good about where we are and take an injury. We get through that tough opening weekend and take another injury. Those injuries are big.
"The girls kept working hard every day. They kept doing what we asked them to do. As a coach, all you can ask for is that kids come out and give their best effort."
The Tigers will go into their SEC opener with true freshmen Brooke and Casie Ramsier, Kiana Clarke and Samantha Solaru in the lineup. Redshirt freshman Alyse Scott will be the goalkeeper.
"They are just such a great group and they work so hard," Hoppa said. "They are so much better now than they were in preseason. I think they'll keep going in that direction. It's really hard for them. It's the next fitness level, next level physically and tactically. They come from an environment where they were the best player on their club teams and now they are playing against 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds. It's a challenge for them."
But none of her freshmen, Hoppa says, have backed down.
"The great thing about this group is they have embraced all the challenges," Hoppa said. "They are getting better and playing a significant role in what we're doing."
Their first SEC game will present a significant challenge. Kentucky will take a 6-1-1 record into the game after winning at No. 10 West Virginia last Sunday.
"Their front four is one of the best in the country," Hoppa said. "They've got maybe the best team they've ever had at Kentucky."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: