Lions prepare for GSC tournament

Chloe Richards kicks the ball downfield past the Statesmen’s Jackie Kelley during the Oct. 28 game against Delta State.

The Lions soccer team ended its regular season Oct. 28 at home with an important 5-1 conference win over Delta State, which helped UNA edge out Valdosta State for second place in the conference.

The win over Delta State came on a day when the team’s seniors were honored for their contributions to the soccer program over the past four years. The seniors are no strangers to success, and the second-place finish in conference means that UNA will have a bye in the first round of the GSC tournament this weekend.

“The season has gone extremely quick, and we’ve come a long way as a team,” said senior Nikki Brown. “This is definitely one of the best teams we’ve had, and we are in position to do some good things in the conference tournament and hopefully in nationals.”

Head coach Graham Winkworth echoed Brown’s sentiments.

“I’m very proud of the team this season and where we have taken ourselves,” Winkworth said. “We’ve had one of the worst injury plagues that I’ve witnessed in my 10 years here that coincided with one of our roughest stretches of losses, and this team came out of it with a second-place finish in the conference.”

Chloe Roberts scored two goals and added an assist while Jo Chubb tallied two assists in their final game at home for UNA. Roberts’ two goals brought her career total to 91.  

As the four seniors were winding down their UNA careers in their final home game, two freshmen showed the promise of the program that those seniors helped to transform. Freshman Chloe Richards scored two goals, bringing her season total to nine, while freshman Melanie Leonida netted her second of the season off of a corner kick sent in by Roberts.

The Lions are defending GSC champions, and Brown said there is no reason they can’t repeat last season’s success.

“It was huge for us to get that win and finish second in the conference,” Brown said. “Now we get a bye in the first round of the tournament and will be able to have fresh legs when we play in the semifinals.”

Brown said ending the season with wins is important in having the momentum of the team heading in the right direction.

“It was good for us to go through the rough stretch earlier where we lost three straight so that we have our momentum going into the most important part of our season,” Brown said.

The GSC soccer tournament begins Nov. 1 and the championship game will be played Nov. 4. UNA will face the winner of the quarterfinal match between Valdosta State and West Georgia Nov. 2.

“We need to focus on ourselves both mentally and physically this week as we prepare for the conference tournament,” Brown said. “We should have some of our injured players healed up and fresh legs going into the semifinals.”

During the regular season, UNA won a close-fought 4-3 game against Valdosta State Sept. 21 and drew with West Georgia 2-2 Sept. 23. Both were road matches for the Lions.

“Both teams play very direct, whereas we like to try and move the ball around a bit,” Brown said. “So maybe they will wear each other down, but I’m confident that we can beat either team we face.”

Winkworth said training this week will focus mostly on the mental side of the game and the adjustments they are likely to need to make.

“Most of the training on the pitch will be small things,” Winkworth said. “We have smart players, so we can rest our injured players during the week and they will still be prepared for the match on the weekend. Both teams play a lot of long balls and have some big physical players. We need to work on being organized on set pieces as well.”

For the seniors, this could be their fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Division II Regional tournament with a good showing in the GSC tournament.

“I expect to get an invitation to the NCAA tournament no matter what we do in the conference tournament,” Winkworth said. “I think we’ve earned the right already with our body of work. But that won’t be the mentality we take into the weekend; we want to win.”

The Lions begin play in the GSC tournament in Pensacola, Fla., Nov. 2.