The University of Arkansas soccer program will begin its defense of the team’s first-ever regular-season Southeastern Conference title with a home opener against the LSU Tigers on Saturday, Sept. 19 at 3 p.m. The Tigers finished the 2019 season in last place in the SEC and were one of only three squads to win just one conference match.
The Razorbacks went 16-3-2 in the regular season last year, including 8-1-1 in conference play. Their form against conference opponents is more crucial this year than ever before, considering the newly implemented eight-game schedule is composed solely of SEC competitors.
Senior defender Haley VanFossen stressed the importance of using their past success as motivation for the current season.
“What we did last year, I think really drives us because we know we have that target on our back and every team is going to play their best against us,” VanFossen said.
Despite the limited number of games, VanFossen expressed her gratitude for any type of competition at all.
“I think we are really fortunate that we’re one of the conferences that get to play despite COVID and everything,” VanFossen said. “We’re just thankful to be given the opportunity to have a season that a lot of teams aren’t.”
Senior midfielder Kayla McKeon echoed VanFossen’s sentiments and made note that the team’s ambition has not dropped in the slightest.
“It’s not a normal season but it’s still a season,” McKeon said. “We’re still able to compete for a championship and everyone is prepared to do that.”
McKeon, who was an SEC All-Tournament team selection in 2018, is coming off a redshirt season due to injury. She says taking her time with recovery has helped her feel back to her old self.
“It’s been a long road to recovery, and I’ve had a few ups and downs,” McKeon said, “but I’ve figured everything out and I’m feeling extremely healthy.”
Her return could be a major boost to an already dangerous Arkansas attack that led the SEC in goals per game (2.7) and assists per game (2.74) in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hugely impacted sports all over the world throughout 2020. The Razorbacks have had to adjust and implement regulations in practices and games to ensure the safety of players, staff and fans. These unforeseen challenges can be daunting for unprepared teams. However, the Hogs are not expecting any sympathy.
“Every single team is going through the same thing,” said VanFossen, “We can’t use this (pandemic) as an excuse because every team is having that same obstacle.”
The Arkansas squad currently contains the reigning SEC Coach of the Year Colby Hale, SEC Defender of the Year VanFossen and SEC Freshman of the Year Anna Podojil. Additionally, the returning team members combined for more than 70% of the team’s goals in 2019. Though there will not be a national NCAA tournament this fall, the team’s goal remains the same.
“I know everyone wants to win another SEC championship,” McKeon said.
The game against LSU will give the Razorbacks their first chance to compete against outside competition since their exit from the NCAA tournament in November. It will also allow them to assess their team that includes 15 newcomers.
Attendance at Razorback Field this fall will be limited to season ticket holders, those on player pass lists and a limited number of UA students. Season tickets to Arkansas’ four home matches are sold out, but all games will be televised or streamed. Masks are required to be worn by all fans attending the competition on campus.