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."

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