With its 1-0 victory last Friday over No. 9 South Carolina, the Tennessee soccer team clinched the SEC Eastern division for the first time since 2005. The Vols finished the regular season at 4-3-1, with a 4-1-1 record in divisional play.
Tennessee had a little bit of added justice in the win. Last season, the Vols dropped their last home match of the year, and the regular season SEC championship, to Arkansas.
“One year later, to be able to turn the tide and be champions ourselves, it's a really special feeling for those kids,” head coach Brian Pensky said after Friday’s win.
Let’s take a quick look at how the Vols won the division.
Tennessee started its season with a 3-1 loss at Alabama. Senior Erin Gilroy scored the Vols’ first goal of the season, but sophomore goalkeeper Lindsey Romig allowed two goals in the second half, and the Vols were unable to come back.
After the match, the team held a player’s only meeting, to discuss their goals for the year.
"Earlier this season, our team had a players-only meeting, which can always be dangerous,” Pensky said. “They can signal that a team is really going to come together, or can be an indication that things are really in trouble. Our players talked about their values and talked about their goals. They wanted to finish top two in the East. They wanted to get a bye in the SEC Tournament.”
The meeting turned out to be just the thing the Vols needed because the following week, they defeated No. 10 Vanderbilt 1-0 in double overtime. Redshirt freshman Jaida Thomas scored the golden goal to give Tennessee its first win against the Commodores since 2013.
In their third match of the season, the Lady Vols fell to No. 8 Georgia, a 1-0 shutout. They would bounce back the next week however, with a 2-1 home win against Missouri.
Tennessee traveled to Kentucky the following week, and earned its lone draw of the year. Junior Abbey Burdette scored a goal in the second minute of the match, but Kentucky scored the equalizer just four minutes later.
Tennessee then dropped an important matchup against No. 9 Texas A&M, a 3-1 loss. The biggest story of the night for the Vols was an arm injury suffered by Romig, who sat out the second half of the match, and missed the next match against Florida.
In Gainesville, Tennessee won its third straight victory over the Gators behind a solid outing from replacement goalkeeper Jenna Rolfe, who joined the team that week and had not played organized soccer in three years.
In the final match of the season, the Vols upset No. 9 South Carolina, with senior Wrenne French scoring the lone goal on senior night. The win clinched Tennessee’s first division title since 2005.
By winning their division, Tennessee ensured their spot as the No. 2 seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament, as the division winners are awarded the top two seeds. As the No. 2 team, the Vols earned a double-bye, meaning they will not play until Tuesday, Nov. 17 in the quarter finals, when they will face either No. 7 Vanderbilt or No. 10 Mississippi State.
Tennessee of course beat Vanderbilt in overtime earlier this season, but did not face Mississippi State, who finished third in the SEC West with a 2-3-3 record.
The SEC champion will be guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament in the spring. Pensky, in his ninth season with Tennessee, is looking to guide the team to its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in his tenure, and its first since 2018, when the Vols made it to the quarterfinals.
Even if Tennessee has a short tournament appearance, there will still be plenty of optimism in Rocky Top. Coming into the season, the Vols had lost several major impact players, MA Vignola, Maya Neal and Katie Cousins to name a few. Not many people outside of the organization had lofty expectations for the Vols.
“I told them,” Pensky said. “I said ‘We’ve lost some good players over the last couple of years. I bet that those out there who have followed Tennessee soccer didn’t think that this 2020 team was going to be the one to break the Vanderbilt streak. And then I told them I bet that same group of people was going to be the first SEC East champs since (2005).’ These kids, they’ve been unbelievably resilient,”
This Tennessee team shocked a lot of people. The Vols were boosted by breakout seasons from several players including Thomas, who led the team with three goals, and sophomore Claudia Dipasupil, who notched five assists and seven points on the year.
On the defensive side, the former All-SEC keeper Romig had another nice year, battling injury to finish fifth in the league with a goals-against average of 1.19. Junior Mackenzie Ostrom and sophomores Isabella Cook and Tara Katz also turned in solid seasons on defense for the Vols.
Additionally, Tennessee will lose just two players after this season, the defender French and the forward Gilroy. Both had a large impact this season in terms of leadership and play, but less talent is lost there than what the team suffered before, by virtue of only two seniors leaving, compared to six in 2019.
In any case, with most of the roster set to return, the hope in Tennessee is that the 2020 SEC Eastern division title is just the first step of a brighter future.