Thursday, April 29, 2021

Rice deals Furman its first loss in NCAA opener

Kyndal Anderson had Furman's lone goal in the Paladins' 3-1 loss to Rice in the
opening round of the NCAA Tournament Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

It took a little more than 15 minutes Wednesday for Furman to become the first women's soccer team to score against Rice in five weeks. By the end of their NCAA Tournament first round match though, the Owls became the first team to beat the Paladins all season.

In a matchup of the only two coaches Furman has ever had, the No. 21-ranked Owls rallied from the early deficit for a 3-1 win on a hot, sunny day in Cary, N.C. Coach Brian Lee's Owls advance to face fifth-seeded West Virginia on Saturday. The Southern Conference champion Paladins, who were playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2015, end the season with a record of 8-1-2.

"Our legs just weren't underneath us today. Obviously scoring the early goal was great, but we were just late to every ball and every 50-50. I could tell we just didn't have the energy that we needed to compete against a team like Rice," Furman coach Andrew Burr said. "We tried to rotate different players and played three different systems today, just trying to find something to give us a lift. At the end of the day it just wasn't enough.

"I'm certainly proud of this group. I think they're mentally and physically exhausted from the last 12 months, but they can hold their heads up high."

The first 15 minutes of Wednesday's match seemingly all took place in front of Furman's goal as Rice (13-2-1) piled up six shots, including three corner kicks. All of a sudden, the Paladins broke through. Freshman Nieva Gaither passed to sophomore Kyndal Anderson, who split two defenders before firing the ball into the left corner of the net at the 17:23 mark. Anderson's fourth goal this season snapped an eight-game shutout streak for the Owls, who had last allowed a goal on March 15.

Rice's aggressive offensive efforts didn't slow down though and seven minutes later, freshman Natalie Gorgi tied the game at 1-1. At the 36:44 mark, Gorgi's shot found the net again and the Owls took a 2-1 lead into halftime. It marked the first time Furman trailed in a game since its season opener on March 5 and the first time all season it allowed more than one goal.

"With a shortened season like we had, you don't have a lot of opportunity to work out the kinks when you face adversity. We didn't have to face it too often this year so when you do face it, it's a little bit of foreign territory," Burr said. "It's a great learning experience for our girls, that's for sure. ... We had quite a few tests this year, and we were prepared. I think just the level of athleticism they have at Rice, we weren't quite prepared for."

Furman had a chance of tying it in the second half on one its just three shots on target for the game, but SoCon Player of the Year Isabella Gutierrez's shot could not find the net.

During a normal fall season, an opening round NCAA game would be held in November and heat would not be any kind of issue. On Wednesday though, Furman played in it's hottest game of the year. It was 88 degrees for the midafternoon game and water breaks were mandatory. Less than five minutes before a scheduled hydration timeout around the 70th minute, Rice added a backbreaking goal from Mikala Furuto.

"We were really hoping to get to that final hydration break (down 2-1) and change our system a little bit to just go forward and attack. Going down 3-1 into it just kind of deflated us," Burr said. "We just hit a wall and ran out of gas on the season. ... This was the biggest field we've played on this year and it felt huge."

The Owls had a 22-6 advantage in total shots and an 8-0 edge in corner kicks.

While disappointed in the result, Burr was able to share a light-hearted moment of reflection with Lee after the game. Prior to starting the women's program at Furman 27 years ago, Lee and Burr were teammates on the men's team. They've been the best of friends ever since.

"Back when we were playing at Furman, we had something called the 'Furman shell.' Anytime we went up 1-0, we would just collapse, get in a defensive posture and get the Furman shell going," Burr said. "I told him that the Furman shell didn't quite work today.

"Obviously, I'm so disappointed for our girls but I'm really happy for Brian and for Rice. I'm certainly going to be pulling for him for the rest of the tournament."

With only two seniors on his 22-player roster this year, Burr said he was proud of how his young team persevered through the challenges of a cancelled fall season and an uneven spring one. He's looking forward to getting back to a normal season again in less than four months.

"Our freshmen had to grow up in a hurry this year and the short turnaround's going to be good for us because we're really just starting to see what this group can do," Burr said. "They got a taste of what it feels like to win a SoCon championship and what it's like to go to the NCAA Tournament. They're excited and hungry for more."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Greenville News: Furman set to face former coach at NCAA women's soccer tournament

The Furman women's soccer team opens play in the NCAA Tournament today against Rice. In case you missed it, here's a link to a story I wrote about this being a meeting of the only two coaches in the 27-year history of the women's soccer program.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Young, unbeaten Paladins aim for SoCon title

Furman's Isabella Gutierrez has been selected as the Southern Conference
women's soccer Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the Furman women's soccer team, the wait was worth it. After having its fall season and it's scheduled new spring season opener both cancelled due to COVID concerns outside of its program, the Paladins opened the season on March 5 by diving right into Southern Conference play against Mercer.

Playing a game that counts for the first time in 480 days, Coach Andrew Burr's young squad persevered with a 2-1 double overtime win. That victory set the tone for the season as Furman reeled off four consecutive shutout wins on its way to a 6-0-2 record and a No. 2 seed for the SoCon Tournament. The Paladins will host third-seeded Chattanooga in the SoCon semifinals on Saturday at 7 p.m. Saturday's winner will play at top-seeded Samford, which defeated fourth-seeded Mercer 6-1 in Friday's semifinal, in next weekend's championship.

"When you go 480 days without playing a game, the team and coaching staff realizes it's a privilege and a blessing to get to play. We've kind of got a renewed sense of excitement for the sport," said Burr, the SoCon's all-time winningest women's soccer coach. "I think part of our success this year was that we just enjoyed getting to play soccer again. ... Furman athletics in general, with Elaine Baker in sports medicine, has done an unbelievable job in keeping 300-plus student-athletes healthy and safe. 

"We have five freshman in the starting lineup, so we're a very young team that we've tried to get up to speed quickly. Not having a full season, we've had to ask our freshmen to really mature quickly and they've done great."

While the Paladins are a young team, they have a veteran leader in junior Isabella Gutierrez. On Thursday, Gutierrez became the seventh different Paladin to earn SoCon Player of the Year honors during the women's soccer program's 27-year history. The Statesboro, Ga. native had four goals and two assists this season, including the lone goals in 1-0 wins over The Citadel and UNCG.

"Bella's been our most consistent performer all year and she's a soccer junkie," Burr said. "She's a perfect fit for Furman University. She excels in the classroom, on the field, and just excels in life. She's a great representative of our program."

Gutierrez wasn't the only Paladin to earn a league award Thursday as Nieva Gaither collected SoCon Freshman of the Year honors. The three-time Georgia Player of the Year at Parkview High had two goals and four assists this season. She had the game-winning goal at VMI and the lone goal of Furman's 1-1 double overtime tie with Samford. Gaither is the 10th Paladin to earn the honor of being named the SoCon's top freshman.

Joining Gutierrez on the All-SoCon first team was freshman Miya Poplin and 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Jasmine Greene. Joining Gaither on the second team was junior Faith Hauberg. Gaither, Poplin and goalkeeper Addison Corn represented Furman on the All-Freshman team.

Corn has an 0.56 goals against average and a 3-0-1 record. She's split time with sophomore Nora Sampson, who has an 0.31 goals against average and also a 3-0-1 record. Corn has allowed just three goals in 486 minutes this season, while Sampson has given up just one in 290.

"It's been a great battle for that starting goalkeeping spot," Burr said. "It's been good for Addison to learn from Nora, but they're both very talented."

While there's plenty of motivation as Furman shoots for its seventh SoCon Tournament title and an eighth NCAA Tournament bid, there's a little extra this season. The Paladins were in first place in the SoCon from the start of the season and had the inside track to the top seed. That all changed with the postponement and then cancellation of Furman's scheduled match at ETSU on March 28.

That match was postponed due to rain and wet field conditions. The Paladins proposed to play the match the following day, just as Wofford and Western Carolina decided to do on the same day, but the Bucs refused and the match was rescheduled for April 6. On March 31, ETSU pulled the plug on its season due to opt-outs and injuries that left the program below the SoCon's recommended guidelines at a key position.

The Bucs (1-6-1, 1-4-1), coached by Jay Yelton, have a 2-14 record all-time against Furman. The cancellation meant that the Paladins would not have a chance to catch Samford (7-1-3, 7-0-2), coached by Yelton's brother Todd, in the SoCon standings.

In addition to missing out on a chance to share the SoCon regular season title, Furman also missed out on the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the SoCon Tournament. Had the Paladins and Samford each finished 7-0-2 in league play, Furman would've gotten the top seed via tiebreaker. The teams tied in their head-to-head meeting, but the Paladins beat third-place Chattanooga while Samford's game against the Mocs ended in a tie.

If Furman had won what turned out to be its last game of the regular season against Wofford, which ended in a tie, the Paladins would've gone 7-0-1 in league play and had a higher winning percentage than Samford. However, Furman still would not have gotten the top seed as the SoCon implemented a points system this year that awarded three points for a win and one for a tie.

"We were No. 1 in the conference and ranked 23rd (in RPI) in the country at the time of the opt-out," Burr said. "Unfortunately in a no-contest, there's no access to points so we went from first place to second place without playing a game.

"That was certainly unfortunate, but it's also the crazy year of COVID. ... It certainly doesn't hurt with a motivation factor. We're just excited to still be playing."

Furman would love a rematch with Samford, which is the last team to hand the Paladins a loss. That came in the 2019 SoCon Tournament championship, where the Paladins fell 1-0.

Before another showdown next weekend at Samford for the championship, Furman must first take care of business against a Chattanooga team that has enjoyed its best season ever at 7-2-1 overall and 6-2-1 in . While the Paladins improved to 27-0 all-time in the series with a 2-0 win over the Mocs in the regular season, Burr knows this will be a challenge.

"They've really done a great job. Coach Gavin (McKinney) has recruited some big-time players and turned that program around," Burr said. "They have some international kids that are very skillful players with very high soccer IQs. ... It's going to be a tough match for us on Saturday."

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Furman men's soccer seeks NCAA tourney bid

Furman senior Ben Hale became the first Southern Conference player ever to win Player
of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year honors Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman men's soccer team put in a lot of work on their home field on Fridays in the fall. That work has helped it have the chance to play there again this Friday. That's when the top-seeded Paladins host No. 4 seed Belmont at 6 p.m. in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament.

There was plenty of uncertainty when Furman opened fall practice on Aug. 10. Three days later, that uncertainty went away as did the season when the SoCon postponed all fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a roster that includes six players from England, one from Wales and another from Iceland, there were plenty of virtual team meetings via Zoom but also plenty of soccer.

"We tried to have like Friday night lights every other week where we'd at least play games against each other, but then we got sick of playing against each other by the end of the fall," Furman coach Doug Allison said. "The guys came back in the spring pretty hungry. Our British guys hadn't had a haircut in five weeks, so they came back to America and got haircuts.

"It was nice and fresh to come back and play this spring, but it's also really bizarre. The ability to adjust has been the key for us. We're just lucky every day to be training and playing and be around each other every day. We don't take that for granted."

That work paid off when the spring season arrived. After an exhibition win over UNC-Asheville, the Paladins opened the regular season in grand style with a 3-0 win over South Carolina. Allison couldn't ask for a better momentum boost to take into the league schedule.

Furman (7-1-1, 5-0-1) opened SoCon play with a double-overtime win at ETSU, an overtime win at UNCG and a double overtime win over Mercer. The Paladins clinched their league-best 21st SoCon title with a 3-0 win on a windy, wet day at Belmont on March 30.

"After the fall, we were just so happy to play someone else. ... To beat a big name and a power-five school gave us a lot of confidence, but I told them that I could see that we will have to work hard to win anything," Allison said. "We're not just going to show up and win. The work rate of our kids has been unbelievable this year."

After an eight-year regular season title drought following the 2010 season, this year's team made it back-to-back crowns for the program with the most in SoCon history. On Thursday, Allison earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. The league's all-time winningest coach (316 career wins) has earned the award nine times.

Allison's honor was part of a historic sweep of the SoCon hardware. Since the Goalkeeper of the Year award was created in 2014, no one had ever won both Player and Goalkeeper of the Year - until Thursday. Furman senior Ben Hale earned both awards after leading the SoCon with an .850 save percentage and an 0.73 goals against average. Hale allowed only six goals all season and had four of Furman's six shutouts.

"Hale has worked and worked and worked to rehab (an injury from 2019) and is absolutely back to his best," Allison said. "We ask our goalkeepers to keep us in games. We've had four overtime games in conference and he's kept us in them completely and given us a chance to win."

Forward Jake Raine, of Stoke, England, was co-Freshman of the Year in the league. Raine leads the Paladins with 11 points (five goals, one assist), including three game-winning goals. A league-high six Furman players made the first team. In addition to Hale and Raine, forward Shaun-Chris Joash (five goals), midfielders Miles Fenton and Callum Holland, and defender Cole McLagan made the first team.

Defender Tommy Kay was a second-team All-SoCon selection for Furman. Defender Josh Hosie and midfielder Sam Miller joined Raine on the All-Freshman team.

"Captains Miles Fenton and Cole McLagan have led us really well, but it's been hard work from everybody," Allison said. "Freshman Jake Raine and sophomore Shaun-Chris Joash have scored big-time goals, particularly in overtime. They're not fazed by who they're playing."

It's the second SoCon Goalkeeper of the Year honor for Hale, who also won in 2018. Hale led the Paladins to the second round of the NCAA Tournament that season, before injuries limited him to just four games last season. Hale was one of many injured Paladins that the squad overcame to win the SoCon regular season title in 2019 before being upset by Mercer in the SoCon Tournament semifinals.

With a healthy Hale and a battle-tested team this season, Furman's goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. A return would give the Paladins ample opportunity to prove their current No. 25 national ranking in the Top Drawer Soccer poll.

The winner of Friday's semifinal between Furman and Belmont will face the winner of Saturday's semifinal game between No. 2 UNCG and No. 3 ETSU. A win on Friday would ensure that the Paladins play for the championship the following weekend in the friendly confines of Stone Stadium.

"With embassies, visas and all the different stuff, it wasn't easy to get everybody here on time. Experiencing college for the first time is tough for any freshman, whether they're foreign or domestic. It's particularly tough during this (pandemic) time," Allison said. "It was quite a bit of work to get everyone here, but it was well worth it. They really are an unbelievable group of kids.

"To be unbeaten in the conference and win it outright in this kind of environment, where there's no doing anything else. You have to stay in your room, and you can't do this and you can't do that. You've got to be disciplined and I'm really proud of what they've done this year because they're college students. They want to visit their friends and go see things, but they realize that to be able to train and play, they've got to sacrifice."

Greenville News: Furman's offense fails to show up again in loss at Mercer