By Aaron Ferguson, Sports Information Graduate Assistant
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – With its ticket punched to the Southland Conference Tournament championship round, the Northwestern State soccer team sets its sights on bringing home its first tournament title and automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Following a 1-0 victory over No. 5 Southeastern Louisiana (7-9-3, 4-5-3 SLC), the top-seeded Lady Demons (11-5-2, 10-2 SLC) set their date with three-seed Incarnate Word (9-9-2, 7-4-1 SLC) on Sunday at the Dr. Jack Dugan Soccer and Track Stadium. The match is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. and can be viewed via subscription with ESPN+.
For a Lady Demon squad laden with experience and memories from past trips to the Southland Conference Tournament, the week’s journey to the top of the bracket has been as much mental as physical.
“Many of them are riding a lot of emotions from last year’s tournament, especially after playing SLU again last night,” said Southland Conference Head Coach of the Year Stuart Gore. “I think we got rid of the first game nerves that are always there in the first match of these tournaments and are just about as prepared as we can be for the championship. We’re ready.”
Junior forward Olivia Draguicevich has been the tip of the Lady Demon spear this season and shows zero signs of slowing. After scoring her seventh game winning goal of the season in the 79th minute Friday against SLU, the Southland Conference Player of the Year finds herself tied for first nationally in game winning goals this season and eleventh in total goals scored (13).
Draguicevich, having been NSU’s top scorer through the past three seasons, is no stranger to nerves and being relied upon in high-pressure situations. For the Southland Freshman of the Year Caroline Hilliard and others on the team, staying ahead of the nerves has been a process throughout their postseason experience.
“We’re talking each other through the nerves,” Hilliard said. “Staying humble and taking it all one step at a time has helped us stay even and focused on the important things.”
Hilliard, the team’s designated thrower, was responsible for serving up the set play which ultimately set up Draguicevich’s game winner in the semifinal match against SLU. Hilliard’s throw in was found by senior forward Kalee Williams, whose clean header set up Draguicevich for the go-ahead goal. The shared assist between Hilliard and Williams marks Hilliard’s fourth of the season coming off a throw in.
In its regular season series with the Cardinals, NSU claimed a shutout sweep, winning both contests 2-0 and moving the all-time record to 7-2-1 in favor of the Lady Demons. Despite NSU showing out against UIW in its past two meetings, Gore and the team understand well that the previous results are ancient history.
“You’re going to see a very tough match between two teams who I expect will leave it all out on the field tomorrow,” Gore said. “Both of our games this season have definitely felt closer than the scores have made it out to be. I expect it to come down to who simply wants it the most.”
Gore also discussed his budding friendship with UIW head coach Emma Wright-Cates, and how their camaraderie has helped Gore through his inaugural season at NSU.
“Emma is awesome,” Gore said. “When I first started with NSU, she was one of the first to call. She’s always been incredibly helpful in showing me the way around the conference and has become a very good friend of mine.”
The winner of Sunday’s championship match will earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and will be recognized in the NCAA Selection Show, which will air at 4:30 p.m. on Monday and can be viewed on ncaa.com.
Photo Credit: Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services