By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information
MURRAY, Ky. – A Gabby Garcia score early in the second half helped ignite the way for the Tennessee Tech soccer team, as the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles secured a 1-0 win over No. 8 Eastern Illinois in Fridays first round of the OVC Tournament.
Tech's triumph, which was the program's first postseason victory since a 3-0 nod over Belmont in the first round of the 2016 OVC Tournament, pushes the purple and gold to a date in Sunday's quarterfinal where they will lock up with No. 4 Murray State on the Racers' home pitch. First kick from Cutchin Field is set for 1 p.m. CT.
Friday's tightly-contested playoff victory also extended TTU's unbeaten streak to seven consecutive matches, surpassing the 2002 Golden Eagle club for sole possession of the second-longest unblemished stretch in program history.
"I thought it was a great game by both teams in an environment with everything on the line," Tech head coach Steve Springthorpe said. "Any time we play EIU, they battle you and have a way of playing an attractive style of soccer, which can make it tough. Today there we two teams out there just scrapping and trying to find a way to advance to the next round. Fortunately, we had enough quality play from our team and found a way to get a goal in the second half to take the lead. From that point on we locked it down and I am very happy for our team and players."
After controlling nearly the entire first half behind a 6-1 shot on-goal differential in the first 45 minutes, Tech (5-5-4) finally broke free just over nine minutes into the second stanza. An Emily Carlevato throw in from the left connected with the shoe tops of Bailey Taylor slightly inside the box. After a pair of Panthers converged, Taylor gently tapped a pass to Yao Giada Zho, who promptly crossed one in the direction of Gabby Garcia on the right side of the box. Garcia corralled the feed and then blasted one into the back of the net to break the scoreless deadlock.
"Overall, I thought we had a lot of decent opportunities up until that point," Springthorpe noted. "We had a series chances throughout the first half and a number of combinations where we found players with good looks, but just hadn't found a way to put one through. Gabby made a great play on the goal, but it was also a really good job by everyone involved in the play. Between the throw in, the cross and then Gabby finding a way to spin the defender and roof it for the score. It was a well-earned goal and it came at a significant time in the game to put us in a strong position at that point."
Leading 1-0, the Golden Eagle defense took it from there, holding the Panthers (4-11-2) to just two second-half shots. Overall, EIU attempted only five shots, with just two attempts on-frame. Isabelle Austin collected her second-consecutive shutout with two stops for her fifth clean sheet of the season and 11th of her career.
"Defensively, we without a doubt performed well throughout the course of the entire game," Springthorpe claimed. "Our back four did a good job of limiting chances, especially in the second half after we scored. We forced them into longer attempts and didn't allow them to really get anything going offensively. Our energy level over those last 25 minutes way key and our defense helped guide us to the finish line."
Tech attempted 10 shots in the contest, but the club's relentless attack featured eight shots on-point to tie for the second-most attempts on-goal in a match this year. The Golden Eagles spread the wealth with Garcia, Giada Zhou, Meredith Nye and Chloe Smith all leading the team with two tries apiece. Kenzie Balcerak paced the Panthers with two shots as well, while EIU keeper Faith Davies registered seven saves in defeat.
With a spot in next week's semifinals at stake, Tech and Murray State will go toe-to-toe in Sunday's quarterfinal clash at 1 p.m. CT. The two teams recently played to a 2-2 draw in the regular-season meeting on Oct. 21 in Cookeville.
"There's no doubt that it will be a major challenge playing Murray State on Sunday," Springthorpe said. "Murray is always good at home and are used to the dimensions of their field. You also have to take into account that they have been sitting and resting, which could make it a challenge, but I know our team is up for it. Our team has been playing well for awhile now and has been accustomed to playing multiple games over a short period of time. I know we will be ready to play. It will all come down to doing the things we know we need to do to come away with a win."
Photo by Jim Dillon