A New Team to Embrace

Monday, August 23, 2021

A New Team to Embrace

Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics

Maybe I’m a little starved for Auburn football to start. Or, maybe I’m just ahead of the curve.

Every so often, the Auburn Family (TM) sinks its teeth into something new. And when it does, it goes All In (C).

Bruce Pearl brought it to the basketball program after so many years of apathy. A pair of Women’s College World Series runs brought sellout crowds for years to Jane B. Moore Field. Just last month, you would have thought there was a football game with the amount of Auburn fans living and dying at 3 AM with Suni Lee’s Olympic performance.

And while fall camp rages on for the football team, we might be seeing the next big thing blossoming right before our eyes, just across Samford Avenue at the Auburn Soccer Complex.

 Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics

Coach Karen Hoppa has been at Auburn for longer than most of her players have been alive.

After six years at her alma mater of Central Florida, Hoppa took over the Auburn job in 1999, just the program’s 7th season ever. Now, in her 23rd season on the Plains, she’s the winningest active coach on campus. With an overall record of 256-168-14 and just four losing seasons, Hoppa is a testament to what consistency in a program can bring.

If you don’t quite recall how the soccer team’s 2020 season turned out, it can be forgiven. A byproduct of COVID wreaking havoc on anything and everything, the schedule was split between fall and spring, the first time that’s ever happened women’s college soccer.

While dealing with a heavy loss of production from the previous year’s team (shoutout to Bri Folds!), the Coach Hoppa guided the young Tigers to a 3-3-2 record in official SEC play in the fall, and a second round exit in the SEC Tournament. However, at the national level, the NCAA Tournament was postponed until spring, so a separate spring slate was created to boost the resume.

In the spring, Auburn went on a 6-1-1 tear, losing only to #9 Clemson and tallying a 16-3 goal differential across the eight matches.

Yet, come selection day for the NCAA Tournament, Auburn was left on the outside looking in.

Flash forward to two weeks ago when I sat down with Mac Matthews, who does some color commentary for the SEC Network when they are in town for Auburn soccer. At the time of the interview, the team had just come off a 0-2 exhibition loss to a solid Memphis program. The glaring weakness of not having a standout offensive threat seemed to be looming large yet again this season, as despite controlling to ball against Memphis, Auburn was unable to find the back of the net.

But Mac seemed unbothered. When we discussed the omission from the NCAA Tournament in the spring, he told us how that was lighting a fire under the team going into this year. He also made it a point to say that all of the youth and inexperience from last year was now a weapon for this year, with experienced talent at every level.

Anchors of this year’s team so far, Maddie Prohaska (GK) and Anna Haddock (midfielder) earned freshman All-SEC honors last season.

Seniors Hailey Whitaker (forward) and Alyssa Malonson (midfielder), along with talented graduate transfer Sabrina McNeill (midfielder) combine to solidify an Auburn attack that grows more potent by the match.

In the season opener at Samford last Thursday, the Bulldogs put up a goal in just the 3rd minute. That lead may have looked insurmountable for a team that only scored 27 goals in 18 matches last season. But not this team.

Instead, Malonson buried a header late in the first half to tie it up, and Haddock hit a rocket of a game-winner late to seal it.

But that’s no big deal, right? Surely Auburn should have no problem beating a small private school from up the road.

Well, 48 hours later the Tigers played host to the #12 team in the country, the BYU Cougars. Safe to say this was a bit more of a test. And I’m proud to tell you that in the first home event of the Auburn athletic calendar, the over 1,000 Auburn faithful brought the noise.

It was a fantastic night for Haddock, who’s on a warpath early this season. The sophomore attacked the net all night, and despite some quality play by the BYU goalkeeper, Haddock found open net twice. And twice was all Auburn needed to knock off the highly ranked Cougars.

Now at 2-0, with two dramatic wins, and what looks like an answer to the “where do the goals come from” question, this team is on its way to big things.

With the team’s first top-15 win since 2017 under its belt, the schedule relaxes for a few weeks while they play several local non-conference matches. Coming up are matches at Troy and South Alabama, and home matches against UAB, UT-Chattanooga, and Alabama A&M.

The non-conference slate ends with the ultimate test, though - a date with #1 Florida State at the Auburn Soccer Complex on September 12th. The Seminoles already have dropped #9 Texas A&M and Alabama by a combined 5-0 goal differential, and lost just one match all of last season. That match, of course, was the national championship, in which they took Santa Clara to penalties.

Coach Hoppa has a dynamic squad on her hands this year. It would be crazy of me to sit here and predict this teams goes on a crazy run, maybe even beating the preseason title favorite in the process.

But this is Auburn, and I’ve seen crazier things happen. If the Soccer Complex is struggling to find room for capacity crowds this fall, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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