Sports

‘We control our destiny right now.’ Mercer soccer focused on NCAA tournament goal

With just three minutes to play against the Samford Bulldogs, Mercer women’s soccer forward Amaya Evans received the pass from fellow freshman Nicole Icen.

On the rain-soaked field following a lengthy lightning delay Sunday, Evans charged towards the box and hit a booming shot into the top left corner of the goal. The ball flew over the goalie’s outstretched hand to put the Bears up 1-0.

“I took my touch and I said I am going to go, this could be the last play so I am going to give it all I got,” Evans said. “I saw that corner and I shot it.”

The goal ended Samford’s 30-game winning streak in Southern Conference play, one that started against the Bears on Sept. 30, 2016.

The goal also was an exclamation point on a statement from the Bears that they are here to stay with the top teams in the conference. The team sports a 12-2 record and are 4-1 in the conference, and is also coming off a pair of wins over two of the top four teams in the conference in Chattanooga and Samford.

“I told them, ‘you see the celebration afterwards, don’t let it end today. Take this momentum into the next four or five games. Let it carry you into the postseason,’” Mercer head coach Tony Economopoulos said. “I think this team believes in itself after what happened tonight and Friday night. We can put together two performances back-to-back against top teams in the conference.”

The team is led by a freshman class that has quickly gelled with a group of veterans eager to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 when they lost 3-0 in the first round to the University of Florida.

“The team has bought into the concept of the team first and not the individual first so it has been great feeling for a head coach,” Economopoulos said. “It is the deepest team I have had in a long time. It is great that we have the freshmen but it is also the whole supporting crew that helps them be successful.”

Icen leads the team with nine goals and Evans isn’t far behind with seven. This has allowed junior midfielder, Abigail Zoeller, to become more of a facilitator for the team after leading the team with 10 goals last season.

“Coming in last year, I knew ‘hey, I got to do the big scoring,’” Zoeller said. “Now I am kind of able to sit back and let these freshmen take it.”

The group of six freshmen have been able to integrate quickly into the team. This isn’t always the case and not all players are able to make the adjustment as quickly as this group has this season, Economopoulos said.

“These girls have done a phenomenal job and again it goes to the staff and the players for finding the right kids that fit the Mercer mold,” he said. “They have bought in. They have learned the hard way, playing in the game. We threw them into the fire and they have done a phenomenal job. They have responded well.”

For Evans, the transition into playing at the college level has seemed like a seamless one on the pitch. She said it has been a big adjustment for her that has been aided by the team and coaches.

“Just having the team, (it is) such a good support system,” Evans said. “I just feel like I can do anything and they have my back.”

The goal against Samford is one that Economopoulos hopes can be a launching pad for Evans who has scored in three straight games but hasn’t performed up to her own expectations, he said.

“I think Amaya has been hard on herself the last few games,” Economopoulos said. “I think this gives her huge confidence and momentum.”

The team has four games left in the regular season before the start of the SoCon tournament including a home game to wrap up the season against the current front runner Furman.

The Bears are a perfect 8-0 at home and are looking to maintain that unbeaten streak. Economopoulos said that his team has multiple goals still in front of them.

“No let downs. We control our destiny right now how we have it,” he said. “… Our girls know the job isn’t done yet.”

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