Friday, 8:00 PM
(1) Texas A&M (18-2-2; 1st – SEC, WTSR – 1.45, 1st – SEC)
Houston Baptist (10-6-5; 3rd – Southland; WTSR – 0.96, 8th Southland)
How Big of An Underdog Is Houston Baptist?
With the exception of SWAC side Prairie View A&M, you could easily make a case for the Huskies being the weakest team in this competition. That they’re even here is nothing short of remarkable considering until recently, HBU was a nascent program in the Great West Conference without a prayer of getting to the Big Dance. While HBU did finish third in the Southland, they were just eighth in WTSR, actually finishing below the 1.00 average at 0.96. I expected them to be an early upset victim in the Southland Conference Tournament, but the Huskies overcame the odds to advance to the final before pulling off a stunning upset over a Stephen F. Austin team that had run the table in the league this year and beaten HBU, 2-0, earlier in the year.
As far as big match pedigree, HBU did test themselves with games against North Texas and Baylor but lost both by 1-0 margins. In fact, HBU only won one of their non-conference matches, a 3-0 win at woeful New Mexico State. While playing some decent competition is admirable, the Huskies also didn’t face a team of Texas A&M’s calibre either. On the other hand, a match like that might have gotten ugly.
Any Other Pessimistic News?
Does HBU not having a single player voted to the Southland Conference All-League First Team count?
Come On Man, Say Something Positive About HBU!
Natalie Hager might’ve deserved some more accolades having netted five goals in the league. The defense, backed by Lindsay Matlock and Kristi O’Brien was pretty formidable in the league, while Patty Walrath did well in goal.
It can’t be understated the job that head coach Misty Jones did either. She took an HBU program restarting in NAIA in 2006 and has it in Division I’s NCAA Tournament less than a decade later. I suspect it’s the type of achievement that may get Jones noticed for bigger positions sooner rather than later.
Texas A&M Might Have Some Pointed Memories Of Their Last Meeting With HBU…
Believe it or not, when these teams met for the one and only time before Friday, HBU led Texas A&M, 2-1, with twenty-four minutes to play. The Aggies would win, 6-2, but still…
Is This Finally The Year When The Aggies Make The Breakthrough And Reach The College Cup?
If not this season, you have to wonder when. A&M finally has the perfect blend of veteran experience, strong goalkeeping, solid defending, and vibrant attack that helped them win the SEC and raise the SEC Tournament title as well. Much of the early shakiness out of conference in the weekend at Arizona has been bled out of the club as they’ve grown in confidence thanks to a long line of wins in league play and in Orange Beach. For once, A&M can be happy with their draw as well. A #1 seed and none of the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, or Florida in their regional. None of the three other seeds in their regional are going to be easily beaten, but none are exactly consistent either, with each having shown real signs of vulnerability throughout the season. Things look very well placed for the Aggies on paper.
Death By Offense, Right?
To be fair, the Aggies actually didn’t finish with the SEC’s top offense, finishing one goal behind Florida, but you can’t deny the point, considering they scored twenty-nine goals in eleven league matches. The Aggies toyed around with personnel early in the season but have settled with the setup in midfield they ran with last year in large part with Shea Groom and Kelley Monogue as attacking midfielders. The frontline of Allie Bailey, Annie Kunz, and Bianca Brinson has rely gelled as the season’s gone on, with Kunz and Brinson in particular impressing. Brinson has pace and aerial ability to burn, while Kunz is a big target forward who isn’t afraid of venturing back into midfield to help the club maintain position. The two combined for eight goals and eight assists in league games and will be needed in the Big Dance to keep the pressure off the midfield duo.
It’s really about Groom and Monogue though. The senior duo have defined this generation of Aggie players and have made A&M one of the most exciting teams in the nation to watch offensively. Groom is simply one of the nation’s very best players. She’s at the heart of almost everything good that happens for the A&M offense, equal parts creator and finisher. Despite being primarily a midfielder, Groom finished second in league goals with eight and has a way of scoring some big goals when they’re needed most. Monogue cooled down late in the season from her scorching form early in the year that rekindled memories of her early career here before injuries slowed her down. But the senior with the whip-like shot remains a threat to any defense and could sign off with a flourish if she finds the back of the net this month.
And There’s Depth Too…
In spades. Defensive midfielder Janae Cousineau? Yeah, she netted six goals in SEC play too, though after being injured in the SEC Tournament, you wonder if she’ll be 100% when the matches really start to matter in a week. Add in the likes of Stephanie Malherbe, Haley Pounds, and especially Mikaela Harvey though, and you’ve got an attacking unit that’s going to push many defenses to their breaking point. If they’re firing true, A&M’s collection of offensive weapons are going to make life miserable for most defenses it faces.
What Could Keep Them From Glory?
The back four isn’t bad by any means, but it could ultimately keep them from lifting the big prize at the end. It’s a lot better than it was at the beginning of the season when they shipped three to Dayton and two to both Arizona schools in the Pac-12. They finished league play with just two clean sheets in eleven matches but seemingly solved some of those problems by keeping three clean sheets in Orange Beach in the SEC Tournament. The full-backs and center-back Meghan Streight are all good defenders but probably a step or two from being top-tier players at their respective positions. The big question is over center-back McKayla Paulson, who missed seven straight matches after a horror tackle in the Vanderbilt win. Whether she’s up to 100% by the time stakes get much higher could well decide if the Aggies make it to Boca Raton.
But They’ve Got A Great Last Line of Defense…
Getting Jordan Day back from injury midseason was a big boost for the Aggies. While stand-in Renee McDermott did a commendable job in her absence, Day has quickly proven her worth upon her return. With strong handling, a fearless mentality in coming off her line, and solid decision making, Day ticks just about all the boxes for a great goalkeeper at this level. Add in great shot-stopping ability, and it’s easy to see why I have Day ranked as the #3 goalkeeper in this senior class, only behind the duo of Sabrina D’Angelo and Katelyn Rowland. Another standout showing in the NCAA Tournament should boost her NWSL Draft stock even further.
So, Bottom Line, How Far Is This Aggie Side Going To Go?
Being in a quadrant with two other league winners isn’t exactly the easiest road at first glance, but earning home field throughout was crucial considering A&M’s historical aversion to cold weather. It’s about putting four consistent performances together, against three seeds with the potential to get to the Final Four but who also face consistency issues at times. But the attack is special, and with Day serving as the rock in between the pipes, this might well be the time that A&M ends their long wait for a trip to the College Cup.