By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Prosperity is abundantly prevalent. Triumph has become typical. Success is now the standard.
Three straight years toward the top will have that effect.
For the Tennessee Tech soccer team, if 2015 served as the starting point, and if 2016 continued the current course, then in many ways 2017 announced an arrival of a program in the midst of a run as good as any in school history.
"We did quite a bit as a group in elevating the program with the season we had in 2016, so we came into this season with reasonably high expectations considering we were primarily a senior-led team," TTU head coach Steve Springthorpe said, on the potential of the 2017 Golden Eagles. "I think for the most part we met our expectations when you consider we finished higher than we did a season ago and put ourselves in a position to win a conference championship. Unfortunately we fell a little short of our ultimate goal, but if you look at what this group accomplished, it was still a really successful season."
If a school record for fewest losses with only five defeats all year, a second-place finish in the conference, a spot in the OVC Tournament semifinals, the longest unbeaten streak in school history and a wealth of program defensive records count as a lengthy list of accomplishments, then the definition of a successful season becomes unmistakably evident.
The 2017 Golden Eagles extended, and at times even heightened, a stretch of Tech soccer that rivals any three-year spurt in program history. Combined with the achievements of the previous two campaigns in 2015 and 2016, TTU soccer has enjoyed 28 victories over the last three years, the most in three straight seasons for the program since the early 2000s. When it mattered most, Tech's 18 Ohio Valley Conference wins in the past three seasons are the most in a three-year window in program history, shattering the old record of 11 from 1998-2000.
The collection of wins has translated to the Golden Eagles establishing themselves as one of the top tier teams in the conference in regards to regular season standings and postseason positioning. Over the last three years, Tech and Murray State are the only two schools in the OVC to finish in the top three in the standings, a first for the program since a span of four consecutive years in the top three from 1998-2001.
The Golden Eagles and Racers are also the only two teams in the league to make it all the way to the OVC Tournament semifinals in each of the last three seasons, only the second time in Tech's program history that the club has made it that far in three straight years. The only other occurrence came in a run of five consecutive seasons from 1999-2003.
"From when we first started here, it was all about growth," Springthorpe said, referencing a program that combined for just five wins from 2013-14. "We all had the sentiment of 'hey we just need to find a way to get better.' We weren't worried about finishing first or second, but it was just about finding a way to get better every single game. Now if you look at it, I think we've established that at least for now we are a team that can compete for conference championships and that was really our staff's goal when we came here."
"I give a lot of credit to the players. We've had so many who have been here throughout this process and stuck through a lot of the tough times early on," Springthorpe continued. "They have been instrumental in elevating this program to where it is now. Now that we've reached this point, the goal is to stay among the best in the league and give yourself a chance each year to win a title. The challenge for us going forward will be to sustain this level of success without a lot of the players who were here to help grow this program into what it is."
As the 2017 campaign progressed, the Golden Eagles picked up steam, eventually smacking an exclamation point on the end of the regular season behind a pair of program records. Tech closed out the regular year with a school-record nine match unbeaten streak, highlighted by five straight shutouts to tie a ribbon on conference action.
After receiving a first-round bye courtesy of their second-place finish, the Golden Eagles were narrowly edged by Eastern Kentucky in the OVC Tournament semifinals. An EKU goal in the 109th minute broke a scoreless deadlock in the second overtime and concluded an eye-popping stretch of 685 minutes without a goal allowed by the Golden Eagles, far and away the longest streak in this history of TTU soccer.
Overall, Tech yielded only eight goals in 18 matches in 2017, surpassing last year's school record of 13 scores surrendered. It's no secret that defense has been the calling card of TTU's resurgence over the last three years, but even a mark that miniscule surprised the Golden Eagle head coach.
"Truthfully, after last year when we gave up only 13 goals, I didn't think it would be possible to get close to that number," Springthorpe said. "I thought we'd of course be good, but to go through an entire season and only give up eight goals is pretty special. That's what we pride ourselves on and that is defending at a high level. I believe in defending first. It's our philosophy and it's what we will continue to do."
TTU's 0.45 goals against average was the best mark in program history and sat a mere percentage point behind the OVC's all-time mark of 0.44. The Golden Eagles had only one match all year in which they allowed more than one goal, and dating back to 2016, Tech has gone 31 of its last 32 matches yielding one goal or less.
For the club's lights-out defensive showing, junior goalkeeper Kari Naerdemann took home the Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor, becoming the first player in league history to win three straight OVC Defensive Player of the Year awards. Naerdemann set school records with a 0.45 goals against average and a .896 save percentage.
The Herne, Germany native wrapped up her junior campaign tied for the Tech all-time career record with 28 wins, as well as tied for the conference's career mark with 28 shutouts after collecting 10 clean sheets throughout the year.
Naerdemann's accolade highlighted a significant haul of all-conference honors, including Naerdemann and Lauren Brewer as all-OVC first teamers. Naerdemann's spot on the first team marked the second ever Golden Eagle with three appearances on the all-conference first team, joining Kelli McCoy who won the honor three consecutive years from 1998-2000. Brewer's recognition marked the second straight year in which the Crestwood, Ky. product took home all-OVC first team honors.
Karigan Owens and Mayra Tarraga Manzanal stamped their tickets on the all-OVC second team, the third straight year on the second team for Owens, while junior Tina Marolt and freshman Kendall Powell secured spots on the conference's all-newcomer team. Owens ended her Golden Eagle career in third place on the all-time career list with 17 assists during her TTU tenure.
Owens was one of eight seniors on the squad, joining Lauren Brewer, Mary Francis Hoots, Michaella Keyes, McKenzie McCloud, Alyssa Montgomery, Cassidy Ortman and team manager Zoie Hensley (three-year player) as Golden Eagles to bid the program farewell. For Springthorpe, the impact that the class made is a key component in Tech's turnaround, helping guide the Golden Eagles to the place that the program is now.
"We had our senior night a few weeks back and I looked at that group of eight seniors and remember what it was like their first year here when we had only two wins and gave up over 50 goals," Springthorpe said. "I think it would've been easy for a group of freshmen at the time to say, 'this isn't what I was expecting' and to leave or not be as invested. It would've been easy to give up and say 'this is too hard.' To their credit, the majority of those players stuck with it and worked at it every single year. They made a conscious effort to improve both physically and mentally and fight through a lot of adversity that they experienced early on in their careers. Once they figured out they could win, they thrived in it and enjoyed it. They saw where the program was going and had the vision to continue to build it into something special."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information