LA GRANDE — There’s a little extra motivation for the Eastern Oregon University women’s soccer team as it heads to the NAIA national tournament after the Mountaineers learned they’ll have to hit the road — and win two games in Arkansas in two days — to reach the championship tournament final site at Orange Beach, Alabama.
The Mountaineers, who claimed an automatic berth to the national tournament by winning the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament last week, learned Monday it will meet Bethel University of Tennessee in Friday’s first round, with the winner on Saturday facing bracket host John Brown University on JBU’s home field in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
“There’s definitely some frustration there. I think me along with a lot of other people think we should have gotten a home bid,” EOU senior forward Nan Kiebert said. “That’s one thing that really irks me and motivates me to want to win the first game more, in order to prove we deserved that automatic bid.”
Both contests are in Siloam Springs as part of the new format for the now 46-team national tournament. The No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in each bracket meet on Friday, with the winner turning around to meet the No. 1 seed.
EOU head coach Jacob Plocher said ahead of the national tournament seeding he was hopeful his team would get a home bid, but where the game is played doesn’t detract from the overall goal.
“We usually travel well and are able to show up for those games,” he said. “In general with how things have shaken out with the national poll or the conference stuff, the girls are still hungry. It's been the goal from day one to get back to Alabama. It's time to show up and perform and get the results we're capable of.”
The Mountaineers (15-2-2 overall) reached as high as No. 6 in the nation early in the season and had aspirations to potentially host one of the opening round brackets. Two losses and a tie, though, during CCC action dropped EOU from the national rankings. Eastern won its final six matches — five by shutout — to secure its national bid.
“Winning (the CCC) tournament was huge,” Kiebert said. “I think we can build off of that. It's keeping us motivated and bringing our confidence up. As a team, every time before a game we go over individual goals but then talk about things we can work on during the game. We've been good about going out and being successful with our goals (during the games).”
The Mountaineers bring one of the nation’s top defenses into the match, as EOU has recorded 12 shutouts and allowed only 11 goals on the season. Cydni Cottrell and Savannah Hutchinson have combined for 49 saves and an 81.7% save rate.
The offense has been led by Kiebert and Morgan Farrington, who have 12 and 10 goals, respectively. Each also has a team-best seven assists.
EOU has scored 60 goals on the season.
Plocher said he likes the draw the Mountaineers have this weekend.
Eastern’s opponent Friday, Bethel, earned an at-large berth to nationals and is making its fourth all-time appearance. The Wildcats, entering with an overall record of 12-5-1, were the third-place team in the Southern States Athletic Conference.
Bethel is led offensively by Janine Davis, who is 12th in the nation in scoring with 22 goals on the season. Davis also has a team-leading nine assists, meaning she’s had a part in more than half of Bethel’s 53 goals on the season.
“(Davis) has done a majority of the scoring, (according to) scouting reports and film. Hopefully we’ll be able to contain her, and if we do what we're able to do offensively we should be able to put ourselves in a good spot,” Plocher said.
Defensively, the Wildcats have allowed 18 goals. Bethel has posted eight shutouts on the season and held seven other opponents to just one goal. Only William Carey and Martin Methodist — the No. 2 and No. 5 teams in the nation — have managed to score multiple goals on the Wildcats. Keeper Shanay Ricketts has 56 saves on the season.
Plocher believes Eastern’s speed on offense can be an advantage.
“Their back line isn't the strongest and quickest, so with our speed and ability to turn the corner we should be able to get going that way,” he said.
A win Friday would pit EOU against the host John Brown Golden Eagles, the No. 2 team out of the Sooner Athletic Conference and No. 16 team in the nation. Like Bethel, the Golden Eagles earned an at-large berth to nationals, and they have a 12-3-3 record on the season. John Brown has allowed just 12 goals in its 18 games and has 11 shutouts. The Golden Eagles also have wins over then-No. 8 Science & Arts (Oklahoma), then-No. 16 Georgia Gwinnett, and a tie with Martin Methodist. JBU is the only team to have a win over Science & Arts, which has a nation-leading 120 goals on the season.
Anne Metz leads a balanced offense for JBU with 10 goals and teammate Jenna Miller has nine goals for a team that has 56 goals on the season. Keeper Caitlyn Logan has 56 saves for an 82.4% save percentage. “They’re definitely a quality team, that's the reason they’re hosting,” Plocher said.
The challenging early slate for EOU, however, which saw it play three top-25 opponents, should help.
“With our nonconference (games) and the results, that's why we play those games, to prepare us for (these) situations,” he said.
Kiebert noted there is a sense of urgency, given that for her and the rest of the seniors, any game could be the last, which is serving as motivation, too.
“It’s terrifying going out thinking each came could be my last one,” she said. “(At some point) this is going to be the last game for everyone as this team. It’s dramatic for everyone. You want to utilize and give your all in each game whether you’re a senior or not.”