This Friday, Apr. 16, Furman’s Women's Soccer team is playing in the “ultimate rematch” according to Isabella Gutierrez, the 2021 Southern Conference (SoCon) Women’s Soccer Player of the Year.
It will have been 523 days since the Paladins came up short in the 2019 Championship, losing 1-0 to Samford despite outshooting the Bulldogs 21-9. Since then, Furman’s program has graduated 10 seniors and brought in seven freshmen. Now, with an undefeated regular season under their belts, the 'Dins are convinced this time will be different.
Furman’s confidence is due in no small part to a season which saw the Paladins face unprecedented challenges off the pitch because of COVID-19. Amidst the chaos, the 'Dins are led by senior co-captains Ellie Laxer and Josie Gillespie. Both are “excellent team leaders” according to their coaches and teammates.
Laxer said that the pandemic has forced the team to take things “day by day” but also allowed for more time to “build chemistry.” Gillespie agreed, and added that “COVID has definitely forced us to become more disciplined and decide what is really important to us as a team.” Junior Erin Houlihan said “this season was all about sacrifice.”
Head Coach Andrew Burr is just happy to have the chance to compete. “We have a new appreciation for our sport,” he explained, “we went 480 days without playing a game, so we are thankful as a team that we are able to participate.”
Burr also indicated that the chemistry his players feel is no accident. “Our training sessions work on pattern play and having players be comfortable with runs and how each member likes to play,” he said.
Last Sunday, Apr. 11, that chemistry was put to the test in a tough semi-final against a talented Chattanooga side. Ranked third in the SoCon, the Mocs held the 'Dins to a goalless draw until minute 88 when Gutierrez combined with SoCon freshman of the year Nieva Gaither to set up a cross for redshirt-sophomore Kyndal Anderson who buried the game.
That clutch instinct has been on display from the 'Dins all season. Furman’s undefeated 6-0-2 (wins, losses, draws) record in the SoCon corresponds with a goal difference (goals for minus goals against) of only 10. That means most matches are not blow outs. They are decided by one, decisive goal. Junior defender Faith Hauberg said, “giving up one goal can change the entire game, so it is really important that we don’t concede.”
In such a competitive league, Furman has played “multiple systems and styles” said Burr, whose players emphasized his “one game at a time” approach with a constant emphasis on the ultimate goal of “the SoCon championship in the back of our minds.”
“We have a confident team… with a high soccer IQ” Burr said, “we feel that as games go on that we are going to find a way to win.” Star midfielder Gutierrez agreed. “Our team has the ability to adapt to multiple different styles,” she said, “depending on who we are playing and the score, we are able to adapt to ensure the job gets done.”
Regardless of the circumstances, though, you can expect the 'Dins to “get stuck in, move the ball around, and score goals,” said Laxer. The team's staples are “low risk” defending and being “dynamic going forward,” said Burr, “when we play that style of soccer, we can be a very tough team to beat.”
If the final against top ranked Samford is anything like the 'Dins encounter with the Bulldogs earlier this season, Furman will indeed need to be solid on both ends of the pitch to come out on top. Their previous meeting in Stone Soccer Stadium on March 21 went to extra time and ended in a 1-1 nail-biter.
Ranked 19th in the latest Women’s Soccer RPI, Furman is well-positioned to triumphantly cap off their season and claim the SoCon championship as well as an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2015.
“Samford does not know what is coming for them,” said Gillespie, “I expect that my team will come into Friday's game with a spark and fight in us that Samford will not be able to handle.”