By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - The flight home from California lasted almost five hours, but for Auburn soccer coach Karen Hoppa, it seemed even longer.
"It was definitely the hardest end to a season I've ever had," Hoppa said, one week after Southern California beat Auburn 1-0 in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals. "Just heartbreaking. There's only one team that's happy and wins its last game."
Hoppa said the defeat was difficult for many reasons.
"We were good enough to be playing in the Final Four," Hoppa said. "We were one inch away. One play away from playing in the Final Four. We had our chances. I thought the teams were evenly matched. One of those games that goes either way. It comes down to the difference of one play.
"It was tough but we look back on it and we're really proud of what we accomplished for sure."
What Auburn accomplished was impressive, including 17 wins, the most in program history.
"We had 29 players on the roster and we had 29 players who were all in, in everything we did," Hoppa said. "The team was completely bought in. A lot of that was a reflection of our leadership. Our senior class and the leadership they provided and the example that they set. Everybody followed that example.
"They were willing to step on that field every game and fight for each other. That showed. Certainly, we had the talent and the quality to succeed. You can have teams that are all in, but don't have the talent. We had that special mix of both, talent and character. That's what brought us to new heights this year."
Winning three NCAA Tournament games by a margin of 11-2 created a stir in the soccer community.
"That streak we had in the NCAAs put us on the map like we've never been before," said Hoppa, after her 18th season. "There's more buzz around Auburn soccer than ever before. I never got so many text messages in a day than when we beat Florida. To finish that high and have a top 10 finish, it's certainly going to help us in recruiting, too."
Auburn's recruits will join a team that returns seven of the 11 starters from the Elite Eight game, including Kristen Dodson, who set Auburn's season record with 38 points.
"That's a big number, that's a majority," Hoppa said. "We know we're going to sign a great class in February to complement the returning group. We know we have our work to do but we know we're capable. That team has got to get to work.
"I already challenged them. We've been there and now we know what it takes and we expect to get back."
Auburn's biggest challenge next season will be replacing the leadership and productivity of its six departing seniors.
"The senior class is really special," Hoppa said. "All of them played their freshman year and they got better every year and made history twice, two years in a row. It's a special group and they leave a legacy behind.
"I always tell teams, `Only one team can ever be the first.' They were the first ever to make Sweet 16, and the first ever to make the Elite Eight. That's a legacy. They've laid a foundation for the Auburn soccer future. We're really proud of them and we're really appreciative to what they've accomplished here."
-- Auburn Soccer (@AuburnSoccer) December 1, 2016
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer