Missouri looks for momentum to continue into SEC championships

Missouri soccer enters SEC championships with highest seed in program history.
Missouri Tigers defender Candace Johnson (23) high-fives her teammates in preparation for a game at Audrey J. Walton Stadium. Led by SEC Coach of the Year Bryan Blitz, Missouri enters the SEC tournament as the No. 2 seed. Courtesy of MU Athletics

It is officially crunch time for Missouri soccer.

With Southeastern Conference championships starting Wednesday, the Tigers are looking to continue what has been, up to this point, the most successful season Missouri has had since joining the SEC.

Led by SEC Coach of the Year Bryan Blitz, Missouri enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed. Only Florida finished ahead of the team in the regular season. Missouri will play its first game against Louisiana State on Wednesday in Orange Beach, Alabama.

The Tigers come into the tournament after finishing the regular season as one of the SEC’s hottest teams. In the second half of the season, Missouri recorded a record of 6-1-2 and only allowed an average of 0.89 goals per game. Missouri finished the regular season with the SEC’s top-ranked defense.

The defense was led by senior center back Candace Johnson, who was awarded First Team All-SEC honors Sunday.

“She’s in the top one percent of kids that have been here,” Blitz said. “It’s really about her character. We’ve had good, physical defenders, but I think she’s kind of the total package in terms of what you want your daughter to be (as a player).”

As for offense, senior midfielder Reagan Russell has reconnected with her form in the 2014 season. Russell scored in three of Missouri’s final four games and is tied for the team lead in goals with four goals. Her efforts were awarded with Second Team All-SEC honors.

“I felt like I was finally getting in my groove the second half of the season,” Russell said. “Every game started to sink in that I was nearing the end of my career, and so I think it kind of added a bit more to my game.”

The resiliency that Russell showed during the second half of the season was characteristic of the entire Tiger squad. Blitz believes quality sets his team apart and offers them the greatest chance to secure the first SEC championship in program history.

“We underperformed at LSU, and our team really rebounded,” Blitz said. “We are undefeated since that time with four wins and a draw here. I think we are playing our best soccer at the end here, which we are going to have to do as we go into (the) grind of the tournament. You want to be playing your best soccer at the end, and I think that is what we are doing.”

The Tigers resiliency in the second half of the season only affirmed Russell’s belief in her team.

“We started off a little slow, and I was kind of nervous, to be honest,” Russell said. “From the summer, I was saying that we had the team to get a championship ring. Once we started picking it up, I knew that we had the momentum that we would need to get to this moment.”

The road to the championship will not be an easy one for Missouri. The Tigers enter the tournament without junior forward Jessica Herrman, who suffered a torn meniscus against Alabama. Herrman was an integral part of the Tiger attack, scoring three goals.

Missouri is also under the pressure of simply making the NCAA tournament. Despite finishing second in the regular season, the Tigers are ranked 50th according to RPI.

“RPI is kind of the voodoo thing,” Blitz said. “Second place is something we are proud of, and I wanted to make sure that we got there just based on seeding.”

Blitz remains confident that his team will be victorious. After all, this is not the first time this season that Missouri will be trying to bounce back.

“I think our kids are really resilient,” Blitz said. “I think they are pragmatic, they are resilient and they will bounce back. That’s why we finished second. We were able to bounce back against tough losses.”

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