UNA controls postseason destiny

Senior defender Samantha Parrish dribbles the ball into Valdosta State territory in their game Oct. 23 in Florence. The two road games the team plays this week, Oct. 26 at Christian Brothers and Oct. 29 at Union, will determine their playoff fate.

The UNA soccer team came into this season fresh off a Gulf South Conference championship in 2015, garnering high expectations for 2016.

But this season has not been quite the same.

The Lions (7-7, 6-4 GSC) find themselves fighting for a tournament berth with two games remaining on the schedule. UNA travels to Christian Brothers Oct. 26 before closing the season with Union Oct. 29 in two key matchups.

“If we win two, we’re in for sure,” said UNA head coach Chris Walker. “(The games) are never easy. CBU are historically good, and Union moves the ball around really well. Those are two good teams, but if we show up on our day, those are teams we can beat.”

The top six teams will make the postseason tournament, as the Lions sit in seventh place. West Florida (30 points) and Lee (27) are the only teams who have secured their place. Mississippi College (22), West Alabama (22), West Georgia (19) and Union (19) round out the top six.

Union (5-4-5, 5-2-4 GSC) is one point ahead of the Lions (18), but only have one game remaining, which is the head-to-head matchup with UNA that could determine who nabs the sixth and final seed in the conference tournament.

“There are basically five teams fighting for four spots,” Walker said.

Christian Brothers (4-10-1, 4-6-1 GSC) has 13 points and is out of contention, but it can still spoil UNA’s chances in the showdown in Memphis.

Sophomore Kylie Huey, who will play near her hometown for the first time as a college player when the team travels to Christian Brothers, said while going home for a game is intriguing, she will still remain focused on the task at hand.

“I’m so excited,” Huey said. “But we definitely have to work hard in each game. We cannot give up right now. This is the time that means the most.”

With each win counting for three points, the Lions could move as high as the third seed if the teams above them fail to win. The third and fourth seeds host in the first round of the tournament, while the top seed hosts the semifinals and finals.

While landing a first round home game will be out of the Lions’ control, entering the tournament is not. At worst, UNA could defeat Union and earn the sixth seed, regardless of what it does against CBU.

The team’s confidence is at its peak heading into the final two games, said senior forward Ele Costello.

“I think that technically, we are one of the best teams in the conference,” Costello said. “I think we can play with the likes of Lee and West Florida, and if we can play to our potential, we would give them a good game.”

The team not only gained momentum after a 5-0 win against Valdosta State Oct. 23, but will also return the majority of its injured players back to the field.

“Everyone for the most part should be healthy this week,” Walker said. “Everyone should at least be in practice this week, and we’re pretty much back to full strength.”

Despite the Lions not being in the same comfortable position they had last season as the top seed, Walker said he likes where the team is.

“I really don’t think anyone wants to play against us right now,” Walker said. “It’s one of those where we just need to get in the tournament and see who we can knock off from there. We’re in a good place.”