Postseason play is nothing new for Texas A&M Soccer - the Aggies are making their 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Head Coach G Guerrieri. What is new is that the Aggies earned a #1 seed in the Tournament this year for the first time in program history. It was a well-deserved honor for Texas A&M after winning both the SEC regular season and the SEC Tournament Championship this season and finishing third just behind UCLA and Stanford in the RPI. The Aggies, looking to make it to the College Cup for the first time ever, now have the opportunity to host games at Ellis Field all the way through the Elite Eight.
The NCAA Tournament will get underway in Aggieland on Friday evening, with the Aggies (18-2-2) hosting the Houston Baptist Huskies (10-6-5) at Ellis Field at 7pm. Both teams come into the matchup having not lost in their last 10 games. The Huskies finished third in the Southland Conference, but made it to the Conference Tournament Final and shocked Stephen F. Austin to earn the conference's auto-bid. The two teams' only like opponent this season is the aforementioned SFA - HBU lost their first game against the 'Jacks 2-0 early in the season, while A&M took down SFA by a 1-0 score. The Aggies and Huskies have met once on the soccer field prior to Friday, and the Huskies actually held a 2-1 lead midway through the second half in 2008 before the Aggies pulled away for a 6-2 victory.
Houston Baptist is led up top by senior Natalie Hager, who scored 8 goals on the season including 5 in conference play. Second on the team in goals scored Elle Hall, a true freshman from Utah, who found the back of the net 5 times during the year. The Huskies' back line, featuring senior Lindsay Matlock and sophomore Kristi O'Brien, allowed 7 goals over 11 conference games. Senior goalkeeper Patty Walrath also played a huge part in that, registering a massive 107 saves over the course of the season. For comparison, A&M's two 'keepers have combined for 60 saves this year.
Texas A&M charges into the Tournament playing some of their best soccer of the season, unbeaten in 15 of their last 16 games, but also nursing some injuries to key players. The Aggies' attack is one of the most prolific in the country, scoring 29 goals over 11 SEC regular season games. Senior midfielders Shea Groom and Kelley Monogue lead the team in offensive statistics, with Groom tallying 14 goals and 4 assists and Monogue scoring 11 times and providing 10 assists. Monogue has cooled off in the scoring department in the latter half of the season, but fellow senior Bianca Brinson (pictured below) has picked up the slack. Brinson has found the net 8 times this year, including a pair of game-winning goals in the SEC Tournament. Brinson pairs with fellow seniors Annie Kunz (6 goals) and Allie Bailey (5 goals) up top for the Aggies, although Kunz is playing through a rib injury suffered in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Perhaps the most underrated player for A&M this season is junior midfielder Janae Cousineau, who has absolutely controlled the center of the field for much of the season for the Aggies and even went on a six-game scoring streak in SEC play. Cousinea has been nursing some injuries as well, though, and she sat out the SEC Tournament Final to try and get healthy. Also keep an eye on freshmen Mikaela Harvey and Stephanie Malherbe coming off the bench into the midfield for A&M.
It was extremely promising to see the Aggies' back four and 'keeper Jordan Day post three consecutive shutouts in the SEC Tournament. Senior Meghan Streight is the anchor of the A&M defense, but senior Leigh Edwards and junior Karlie Mueller have been key contributors at the fullback positions as well. True freshman McKayla Paulson saw her first action in about a month in the SEC Tournament final last Sunday after suffering an ugly ankle injury against Vanderbilt. Paulson had been tremendous next to Streight in the center of the defense for much of the year, so having her back healthy for the tournament would be huge for this team, but sophomore Ashlynn Harrymann filled in admirably in her absence. Now that Jordan Day is healthy and back into the starting lineup for the A&M, she has been a huge factor in the Aggies' success down the stretch as well, including an MVP-type performance in the SEC Tournament Final.
It would be incredibly beneficial for Texas A&M if they could jump out to an early lead against the Huskies and be able to rotate a number of players into the game and rest some of these key players who are trying to fully recover from injuries. As mentioned, the Aggies can host all the way through the Elite Eight of the tournament. The Aggies' portion of the bracket looks as follows, meaning a win this Friday would put them up against either Arizona - who the Aggies played to a 2-2 tie early in the year - or former Big 12 foe Oklahoma State next weekend.
Be sure to get out to Ellis Field at 7pm this Friday evening to support the Aggies and help them advance in the Tournament. This has been a special season for A&M, and I know this senior class wants to make sure it doesn't end anytime soon. BTHO HBU!