Top-seeded Utah State soccer repeated as the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Champions with a hard-fought 1-0 win over second-seed and 19th-ranked Denver on Sunday afternoon to successfully defend its home field at Chuck and Gloria Bell Soccer Field. USU becomes the first back-to-back WAC champion since SMU won in 2003-04. The Aggies have won both of their WAC titles with 1-0 wins in the final match.
The Aggies also completed the WAC sweep with winning the regular-season and tournament title and will advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year and its second in school history. The 64-team bracket will be announced Monday afternoon.
The lone goal of Sunday’s match came on an own goal in the fourth minute, as junior midfielder Kendra Pemberton passed the ball across that inadvertently deflected off of DU defender Cassidy Larson and went past Denver goalkeeper Lara Campbell and into the net.
“What can you say? That was awesome. To be able to win that on our home field, with so many fans, the fans were incredible. We made that early goal; we made that early goal stick. I thought both teams after that had chances to score and we were just lucky that we kept them off the board. We kept pushing for that second, didn’t quite get it, but it didn’t matter today. We did what we needed to be done today,” USU head coach Heather Cairns said.
Senior defender Natalie Norris added her hardware collection for the week by being named the WAC Most Valuable Player after being named the WAC Defensive Player of the Year on Wednesday at the awards banquet. Norris was joined on the all-tournament team by fellow defenders, juniors Jackie Tillotson and Taryn Rose, along with senior goalkeeper Ashlyn Mulford.
“To win the WAC Championship in front of our incredible fans makes the win extra sweet,” Cairns said. “It was just an awesome soccer environment and the fans were just fantastic today and gave us an emotional boost.”
USU won its eighth-straight match overall in improving to 13-2-6, and the Aggies are unbeaten in their last 11 matches. The Utah State defense has also posted a shutout in three of its last four matches, and Sunday was its eighth shutout this season.
“I’m not going to lie, that second half was probably the most hectic soccer we’ve ever played,” Norris said. “Honestly, our goal was to keep them out of the back of the net, and that is what we did. That’s what we went for the entire game.”
Denver had its 19-match unbeaten streak snapped with the loss Sunday and are 15-2-4 overall, as the Pioneers hadn’t lost since their first match of the season back on Aug. 17. DU has now been shutout only three times this season with two of them by Utah State, after the two teams played to a 0-0 tie in Denver on Sept. 30.
DU had three players on the all-tournament team in Kalie Vaughn, Jessy Battelli and Kaitlin Bast. Also on the all-tournament team were Lynsey Curry and Emma Staley from third-seeded Texas State along with Seattle’s Stephanie Verdoia and Melissa Busque.
Sunday was the final match on Chuck & Gloria Bell Soccer Field for USU’s three seniors, Norris, Mulford and defender Kami Montgomery, and it was a memorable one for sure.
“It’s huge. To be able to do it on our home field, in front of all these fans, all our family. We had a huge turnout today, and we honestly can’t believe the support we received. To be able to come away with a win, it means the world to us. We can’t even put it in words,” said Norris about what it meant to have a successful result in her final home match.
While only one goal was scored, both teams had several chances, but both goalkeepers and the defensive lines turned them away. Campbell ended the match with five saves, while Mulford made four saves in logging her eighth complete shutout of the season. Mulford also lowered her goals against average to 0.50, which is on pace to break the school record set last year by current USU undergraduate assistant coach Molli Merrill.
DU had 14 shots, while USU had 12 shots. Flynn led the Aggies with five shots, three of them on goal, while Norris added three shots, one on goal.
The Pioneers were led by five shots from Cassidy Larson, with two of them being on goal, while WAC Offensive Player of the Year Kristen Hamilton was kept in check by the Aggie defense with only two shots.
“It’s huge. Actually, as soon as we took the first NCAA trip last year, as soon as we ended it, our goal was to get the NCAA again. We’ve never looked back from that. We always want to progress as a program and as a team. So, that was our goal from the year. Here we are getting the chance again,” Norris said.
Fans can still vote for senior defender Natalie Norris for the 2012 Senior CLASS Award in collegiate that were selected as finalists for the award.
Doug Hoffman is the assistant athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.