Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Razorbacks return to Orange Beach, where title has been elusive
A soccer ball sits on the field prior to a game between Arkansas and Georgia on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas will play its first game as a Southeastern Conference soccer champion Tuesday at the site where a conference title has eluded the program several times before.
The No. 6 Razorbacks are the top seed at the SEC Tournament and open with a quarterfinal matchup against Ole Miss at 5 p.m. The game will be televised by SEC Network-Plus.
Arkansas (14-2-2) won the league’s regular-season championship last Thursday with a 3-1 victory at Tennessee, but the Razorbacks would no doubt like to collect another trophy in Orange Beach, Ala., where they have finished runner-up five times, including three consecutive seasons.
The Razorbacks’ recent championship game losses have been excruciatingly close. Arkansas lost 2-1 to Florida on a golden goal in the final minute of overtime in 2016; lost 2-1 to Texas A&M when the Aggies scored the game winner in the 88th minute in 2017; and lost 4-1 to LSU in penalty kicks last season after the Tigers tied the game in the 72nd minute.
With each loss, the Razorbacks were denied their first conference championship.
Arkansas has been the talk of the town leading up to those games, winning seven games over the past three years in Orange Beach while employing its aggressive, attacking defense. It is a style that can get into the legs of opposing teams this time of year, especially when they are playing multiple games in a time frame as short as the one-week tournament.
“Honestly it’s just the way we play,” Arkansas senior Stefani Doyle said. “We don’t think about being more physical than other teams because we just go hard in practice against each other.”
The Razorbacks have been superb on both ends this season, outscoring their opponents by a combined 54-7, including 27-5 in SEC play. Arkansas leads the SEC in goals scored and fewest goals allowed.
“I would say three years ago it was more about us being the physical team than anything else,” Arkansas senior Tori Cannata said. “Over the years it has become more of a balance of where we’re going to be physical, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to run hard for 90 minutes, but we’re also kind of getting into the area where we’re playing good soccer and scoring nice goals.”
Arkansas defeated Ole Miss 3-0 in Fayetteville on Oct. 3, the first game in the Razorbacks’ seven-game unbeaten streak. The Rebels (10-6-3) advanced to the quarterfinal round with a 2-1 victory over Mississippi State on Sunday that included a game-winning goal in the 89th minute.
The winner of Tuesday’s matchup will play either Texas A&M or Florida in the semifinal round Friday.
“Before every game or practice, we’re like, ‘We need to focus on this one game, not what’s ahead of us,’” Doyle said. “Anyone can win in the tournament and anyone can win in the conference.”
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