Most wins ever? Check. Highest ranking ever? Check. Hosting in the NCAA tournament? Now the Centre College women’s soccer team can check that off its list, too.
One milestone at a time, the Colonels have been adding to a growing list of firsts for their program, and they’ll achieve another this weekend when they host first- and second-round games in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Centre coach Jay Hoffman said earning the chance to host postseason games is the latest first for a team that already has several firsts this season. The Colonels have the most wins and best record in school history at 19-1, and they also have the most shutouts (14) and the highest ranking (as high as No. 6 in one national poll and No. 7 in another) ever.
“They want to be the team of firsts. They want to be able to accomplish a lot of those things,” Hoffman said. “They don’t come out and say it, but I know in the back of their mind, the seniors don’t want to leave the program not being the team that did it all.”
The next step comes Saturday when Centre faces Agnes Scott in the first half of a first-round doubleheader at its Hillside Field. A win would send the Colonels to a second-round game Sunday against the Emory-DePauw winner.
The Centre women are making their second straight NCAA appearance and their third overall, and they aren’t the only ones playing postseason games this weekend. The Centre men qualified for the NCAA for the first time since 1999 and the fourth time overall, and they’ll face defending national champion Ohio Wesleyan in a first-round game Friday at Wheaton, Ill.
Centre’s women won their first 15 games, and they shut out their opponents in 12 of those wins, thanks in large part to an airtight back line packed with veterans.
The most decorated among them is senior Amy Hebbeler, last year’s Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference defensive player of the year. She is joined on the outside by junior Catey Hunter, and seniors Rachel Brannen and Brittany Eisner are in the middle.
“Our back line is very, very solid. We returned a great group,” Hoffman said.
Goalkeepers Megan Foley and Holly Hilton have allowed only seven goals, but they also have only 36 saves, a testament to how seldom opponents are shooting on the Colonels.
Hoffman said Centre has also benefitted from the return of junior midfielder Liz Miller, who missed last season with an injury.
“Last year we missed having Liz in the middle of the field. She’s a phenomenal ball-winner, and she does an outstanding job in that role,” Hoffman said.
Centre’s top scorers are freshman forward Alex Combs (eight goals, five assists), a Boyle County graduate, and senior midfielder Mary Taylor Kersey (eight goals, four assists).
“We’re starting to have forwards that understand the system of play and are very excited about it,’ Hoffman said.
Centre won the inaugural Southern Athletic Association tournament at home last weekend, and Hoffman said he hopes opening the NCAA at home will again give the Colonels an advantage.
“The biggest advantage is the fact that the girls know the routine at home, and they don’t have the stresses that they can’t control,” he said. “And we hope that we play in front of a large crowd.”
Admission is free for all three games Saturday and Sunday at Hillside Field.
Centre’s men face a tall order in their first-round game Friday, but coach Jeb Burch said that’s nothing new for the Colonels.
“We ended up playing the second-best strength of schedule in our region, and we were in the second-most difficult region in the country,” Burch said.
“We’re kind of used to going up against a team like this, and I think our guys are excited to be here,” Burch said. “Some people might feel intimidated because they’re the defending national champion; I’m fine with the matchup.”
Centre (14-3-3) tied for the SAA regular-season championship and reaching the tournament final, where the Colonels played Berry to a tie before losing on penalty kicks.
“It hasn’t been easy for us, but that’s where the growth comes. We’ve been able to grow as a team all through this year and not lose,” Burch said. “That’s the trick. You want that challenge, but you still want to be able to win.”
Centre began making regular NCAA appearances in the 1990s, and Burch, who will coach in the NCAA for the first time, said it’s good to be back.
“It means a ton to me. This tournament is a proud program and has certainly been there for a long time,” he said. “We’ve had our fair share of years on the outside looking in, ... but we’ve always had quality players here, and it’s never been something that’s hung over the team.”
The Colonels’ top offensive threat is senior Ryan Garvey, who has scored 19 goals to break a 23-year-old school record.
“He’s been a big part of it. He’s had a fantastic senior year,” Burch said.
Left back Robbie Tarver, a junior, ranks in the top 10 in the nation in assists with 11.
Burch said the Colonels’ back line, with sophomore Jeremy Carlson in the middle and sophomore Miles Hill joining Tarver on the outside, is defending well but can also produce goals, and he said senior forward Josh Settle has also proved to be a dynamic player at times.
Burch said senior goalkeeper Zach Sosnovich has also evolved into a solid stopper.
“I thought he started off shaky this year, and he has really turned it around in these last three weeks. He’s made the big save to keep us in the game, and we’ve gone on to win those games,” Burch said.
If the Colonels win Friday, they’ll play a second-round game Saturday night against the Transylvania-Wheaton winner.
NCAA Division III Soccer Championships
At Wheaton, Ill.
Centre (14-3-3) vs. Ohio Wesleyan (13-2-5), 6 p.m.
Transylvania (16-1-2) vs. Wheaton (15-3-3), 8:30 p.m.
Centre-Ohio Wesleyan winner vs. Transylvania-Wheaton winner, 8:30 p.m.
Agnes Scott (10-9-1) vs. Centre (19-1), 5 p.m.
Emory (11-1-6) vs. DePauw (7-10-1), 7:30 p.m.
Emory-DePauw winner vs. Agnes Scott-Centre winner, 5 p.m.