UNA soccer team clinches second GSC title

The UNA women’s soccer team celebrates with the Gulf South Conference Championship trophy Nov. 8. The team won the GSC Championship game for the first time since 2011.

by Associate Sports Editor Kadin Pounders

The moment junior Stacey Webber’s shot hit the back of the net, UNA coaches, players and fans alike rushed the field in an emotional celebration.

In one of the most intense and high-pressure situations in soccer, the UNA soccer team prevailed as Gulf South Conference champions, defeating the Lee Flames 4-3 in penalty kicks.

“It may be one of the most memorable athletic experiences I’ve ever been a part of,” said Athletic Director Mark Linder. “After the game-winning goal went in, student-athletes from other sports stormed the field. I think that was a really emotional time for all our student-athletes and speaks well about the culture we have here.”

The Lions (15-2-2, 10-2 GSC), who jumped nine spots to No. 15 nationally, hosted the GSC tournament this past weekend and defeated both West Alabama and Lee University to claim their second conference championship in program history.

“We had a bit of a chip on our shoulder being picked third (in preseason), but we won the regular season,” said head coach Chris Walker. “We won this one and it’s fantastic. (I give) all credit to the girls.”

UNA beat West Alabama 1-0 in the semifinals Nov. 6 to advance to the championship match against Lee. Senior forward Chloe Richards scored the lone goal of the match, giving her 30 goals on the season.

“I thought we dominated the game,” Walker said. “We should’ve scored a few more (goals), but we’ll take the win and move on to the finals.”

In the GSC final, the Lions and Flames played four periods of scoreless soccer, including two sudden-death overtime periods. With no score after 110 minutes, the game headed to penalty kicks.

UNA elected to let the Flames kick first, putting sophomore goalkeeper Shelby Thornton in the net.

“When it came time to take (penalty kicks), I was confident in my teammates (who were) chosen to take one,” Thornton said. “Personally, I kept my confidence up by remembering that my coaches and teammates were just as confident in me as I was in them.”

Thornton, who leads the conference in save percentage, denied the Flames three times to set up Webber for the game-winner.

Richards, Melanie Leonida and Kristen Sinden made their penalties before Webber sealed the deal.

“I just wanted to net the ball to give back something to my teammates and coaches,” Webber said. “I knew as long as I hit it hard and on target, then it had the best chance of going in. I just had to keep composure.”

The conference named Susan Lang, Samantha Parrish, Richards and Thornton to the GSC All-Tournament Team. The conference also named Thornton Most Outstanding Player with six total saves during the tournament.

“I was not expecting to win MVP of the tournament at all,” Thornton said. “I was completely honored to receive it.”

Webber said playing at home was extra motivation to redeem last season’s 3-0 championship loss to Valdosta State.

“We didn’t show up to the final against Valdosta, and they totally outplayed and outworked us,” Webber said. “This year, we have performed well all season again. To have the home advantage, with our unbeaten streak and such a great crowd, it definitely got us pumped up for the game.”

With the conference championship in the bag, UNA is now looking forward to regional play. The Lions will host Lee University and the University of Tampa in the first leg of the regional tournament Nov. 13 and 15.

Hosting is a huge advantage for UNA who has yet to lose a match at home this season, posting a 9-0-1 record on its own turf.

“Hosting is always a great thing,” said freshman forward Kylie Huey, who has seven goals this season. “We get to play on our turf that we have not lost on all season. We also get all of our home fans to come and show out, which means a lot to the team.”

Lee and Tampa will face off Nov. 13. The winner of that game will play UNA Nov. 15 to move on to the region championship.