By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The season is officially here as the Tennessee Tech soccer team gears up to maneuver all across the Volunteer State for a pair of weekend matches that will signal the start of the 2017 campaign. Chapter one of Tech's regular season story will see the Golden Eagles in Nashville Friday night for a 7 p.m. CT affair with Vanderbilt, before TTU flips the page to a Sunday evening tilt at East Tennessee State, beginning at 6 p.m. CT.
The Golden Eagles march into the season chock full of momentum, behind one of the most successful two-year stretches in program history. Tech's 19 combined victories over the last two years are the most in back-to-back seasons since 2002-03, while the club's 12 Ohio Valley Conference victories over the last two seasons are the most in a two-year window.
The wins have translated in the form of consecutive top three conference finishes, the first time a TTU squad has finished in the top three in back-to-back years since 2000-01. From a postseason perspective, the Golden Eagles have reached the OVC Tournament semifinals in two-straight years, a first for Tech since the conference tournament expanded to six teams in 2003.
Defense has proven to be the calling card during this robust stretch for the Golden Eagles, highlighted by last year's program record for fewest goals allowed with just 13 surrendered in 21 matches. Tech tied for the lead in the OVC with a school-record 11 shutouts, while also sitting atop the conference in goals allowed per match (0.62) and goals against average (0.59).
Junior goalkeeper Kari Naerdemann, a key component in the club's sturdy defensive prowess, returns for her third season between the pipes, equipped with an already hefty resume during her two years with the program. The Herne, Germany native has claimed the last two OVC Defensive Player of the Year awards, the first back-to-back winner in Tech history since Kelli McCoy in 1999-2000. Naredmann was also recognized within the TTU Athletics Department, hoisting last year's the Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year award. She enters the 2017 campaign as Tech's career leader in save percentage (.857), goals against average (0.73) and shutouts (18).
Naredemann isn't the only Golden Eagle that heads into the season draped in accolades, as three other returners boast postseason hardware from a year ago. Senior Lauren Brewer, who helped anchor Tech's stingy defense with a program record 1,985 minutes on the pitch in 2016, took down All-OVC first team honors. Fellow senior Karigan Owens, last season's OVC leader with eight assists, captured All-OVC second team accolades, and sophomore Nora Vicsek, with a club-leading four game-winning goals, was recognized on last year's OVC All-Newcomer team.
Vicsek and Owens represent two of seven returning Golden Eagles that found the back of the net in 2016 as TTU split the pipes 25 times as a team, most since 2009. Vicsek scored four times, Owens and sophomore Dani Shartouny collected three goals, senior Michaella Keyes notched a pair of scores, and senior Mary Francis Hoots, junior Mayra Tarraga Manzanal and sophomore Kaitie Shipley all had one goal last season.
Vanderbilt welcomes the Golden Eagles to Nashville for the season opener, having just been selected eighth out of 14 teams in the SEC preseason coaches poll. The Commodores are coming off a 9-9-1 2016 campaign, going 5-5-1 in the conference, good enough for a tie for sixth.
Five Dores were selected to the SEC preseason watch list, including graduate student Simone Charley and sophomore Grace Jackson. Charley returns to the Vanderbilt mix after a 2016 red-shirt season, but did manage to lead the club with seven goals, four assists and 18 points in 2015. Jackson made an immediate impact in her Commodores tenure, securing All-SEC Freshman honors last year after leading the team with 16 points, six assists and three game-winning goals.
Vanderbilt has won all four previous meetings against Tech, however the Golden Eagles checked the win column the last time they locked up with an SEC school. Following three-straight one-goal losses to open the 2015 campaign, TTU edged the University of Alabama, 2-1, on Aug. 30 for the squad's first win of the season that helped get the wheels in motion for this current prosperous stretch of Golden Eagle soccer. The victory was also the first ever for Tech against an SEC school.
East Tennessee State will play host to SC State before its matchup with the Golden Eagles Sunday evening, entering the season ranked preseason No. 2 in the Southern Conference. The Bucs posted a 13-6-2 overall record in 2016, going 6-2-1 in conference action, before advancing to the SoCon Tournament championship match where they were ultimately upended by top-seeded Samford.
Three Buccaneers earned preseason All-SoCon honors, with forward Eleonora Goldoni, midfielder Isabel Hodgson and defender Emily McKerlie hoisting the honors. Goldoni finished second in the conference last season with a team-best 15 goals and 33 points. Hodgson tied for the team lead with nine assists, while McKerlie was part of an ESTU defense that tallied eight shutouts.
The Bucs hold a narrow, 6-5-4, edge in the all-time series with the Golden Eagles. The two teams played to a 1-1 draw last year in Cookeville.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information