In one of the Arkansas soccer program’s best seasons, the Razorbacks’ early departure from the NCAA Tournament is hardly definitive of the 2019 Arkansas soccer team.
The Razorbacks went 16-3-2 in the regular season, including 8-1-1 in Southeastern Conference play. Their 25 points were good for the first regular-season SEC title in program history, en route to their fourth-straight appearance in the SEC Tournament final and their first-ever national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After a road win to start the season, the Hogs returned home only to lose in extra time to the Oklahoma Sooners. Junior defender Haley VanFossen said that the loss to Oklahoma motivated the team and drove them for the remainder of the season.
Senior forward Tori Cannata mentioned the magnitude of the early-season loss.
“Losing to OU shocked us at the beginning of the year,” Cannata said. “We had to get our butts into gear after that.”
The Hogs made some drastic improvements at the end of August heading into the crucial month of September. The Hogs went almost the entire month without conceding a goal, with South Carolina notching the only score allowed by senior goalkeeper Katie Lund in the month of September on the 29th.
Hale’s squad went on a tear in September, including seven Arkansas wins, all shutouts, three of which came against ranked teams. The most prominent of these was the 2-0 defeat of the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels in front of the home crowd in Fayetteville.
“Honestly, it’s one of the coolest things to look back on,” VanFossen said. “We beat the No. 1 team. They made it all the way to the NCAA championship, and we’re their only loss.
“It’s something that we’re going to look back on and think of for the rest of our lives. We really showed them that Arkansas has something to prove.”
Hale praised his team’s consistency after the first three games of the season. To his point, the Razorbacks swept the remaining five-match non-conference slate, won eight of their 10 SEC matches and left just five points on the table to claim the regular-season SEC title.
“The way we played throughout the SEC showed who we were and what we wanted to accomplish this season,” Cannata said.
Arkansas accumulated the most points in conference play to secure the top seed in the SEC Tournament. Wins over Ole Miss and Florida on Nov. 5 and 7, respectively, propelled the Hogs into their fourth consecutive championship match, where they fell to a top-10 South Carolina team for the second time in 2019.
The Razorbacks remained among the nation’s top 10 teams following their second-place tournament finish. The selection committee deemed Arkansas a No. 3 seed, meaning no home-field advantage in rounds two and three of the NCAA Tournament. Nonetheless, it was the program’s first ever national seed.
The first-round match against North Texas took place in Fayetteville in front of a packed Razorback Field. The Hogs dominated possession all night under the monotonous blaring of vuvuzelas. 1,331 fans saw a thorough 3-0 thrashing of the Mean Green in the final match at Razorback Field in 2019.
In the second round, the Hogs traveled to Provo, Utah, in hopes of making it to the national quarterfinals. In a game that mirrored the Hogs’ second-round matchup in 2018 against Virginia Tech, Arkansas met the unseeded North Carolina State Wolfpack.
After falling behind by two goals in the second half, the Razorbacks mustered a late comeback effort to draw within one goal. As time ran out, star freshman Anna Podojil fired a potential buzzer-beating equalizer that sailed a couple inches north of the crossbar. It was the fourth second-round defeat Arkansas suffered since 2014.
“It’s hard to look past,” VanFossen said. “I feel like it was just one of those games where we just didn’t perform our best, but I don’t feel like that defined the season for us.”
Arkansas was one of the first national seeds to be eliminated from the tournament.
“It’s not all about wins and losses; it’s also about getting better as a program, and I think that’s something we did this year,” Cannata said.
Hale noted that Arkansas set program records in goals for and goals against this season. The Hogs’ 62 goals for led the SEC in 2019, 11 more than second-place Texas A&M. The Hogs’ 11 goals against resulted in a 0.47 goals allowed per game average, second in the SEC to national quarterfinalist South Carolina.
“(This season was) the first time we beat a number one and our first SEC championship. We don’t want to overlook that,” Hale said.
Arkansas finished the season ranked 12th in the nation.
“I’m definitely happy with the way (the season) went,” Cannata said. “I wish we would have gone further in the tournament, but other than that I couldn’t have asked for a better season with a better group of girls.”
Arkansas will return to play in August 2020.
“I think (the team is) definitely going to get better,” Cannata said. “I think whoever comes in in the fall or spring, I think (next year’s players) are going to have to do a lot to raise the level even more, but I definitely think the seniors next year, everyone on the team, has what it takes to do even better next year.”