In the middle of the field all by themselves, Rachel Hill leaped into the arms of her powerhouse teammate Stephanie Ribeiro, giant smiles painted on their faces. The rest of their team had formed a mob outside of the box, but these two remained alone, even for just a moment. They had earned it.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon turned evening, the UConn women’s soccer team defeated the SMU Mustangs by a score of 1-0 to earn the title of American Athletic Conference champions under the lights of Joseph J. Morrone Stadium. They had previously tied with the Mustangs in the regular season, the only conference game that UConn did not win.
“It was pretty awesome. I’m pretty excited,” senior goalkeeper Emily Armstrong said on winning the tournament at home. “And we won the regular season [title] too, like, that’s really great. I couldn’t ask for something more for a better group of girls.”
UConn hosted the entirety of the tournament, where the Huskies played the semifinals on Friday and the finals on Sunday. Home field advantage is always a good thing, but at the end of the day, the true testament is the strength of your teammates on and off the field, Armstrong said.
“I think for me, it was really cool just to hear the fans cheering for us and just to have the support of our families out here. I think it definitely helped, but at the end of the day, our senior leaders helped on the field,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just 11 players on the field, it’s the entire team and everyone played a part today in supporting our team.”
The game was evenly fought for the majority of the first half, though UConn outshot SMU 6-1. UConn had an opportunity to get an early lead, but Ribeiro fed a ball to freshman Alexa Casimiro just out of reach and it rolled out of bounds.
At 23’, the Huskies had another golden opportunity on their second corner kick of the game. Starting in the place of freshman forward Kristen Vinciguerra, who was banned from starting in today’s game due to receiving a red card in Friday’s semifinal, redshirt freshman Annika Schmidt took her first shot of the game, but SMU goalie Catie Brown made a tremendous save to keep the score knotted at zero.
Ribeiro would take one more wide shot before UConn struck against SMU for the first time this season. Having been subbed into the game nine minutes before, sophomore forward Kim Urbanek made sure she was a difference-maker.
After battling for possession, she poked the ball over to Hill, who rushed downfield past the entirety of SMU’s defense and rolled one past Brown with ease to give UConn a 1-0 lead with six minutes left on the clock.
“Kim [Urbanek] has great vision on the field. She looked up, we made eye contact, she played it through and it was a perfect ball,” Hill said. “I just kept taking touches until I saw the goalie start to come out, and then I saw the near post open so I slipped it by.”
Not only was that goal her 15th of the season and second of the tournament, but it put her only three goals away from tying the all-time goals scored record. With UConn likely to play at least two more games in the NCAA tournament, it is more than likely that Hill will either tie or earn the record for herself.
The Huskies opened the second half by dominating possession. Two minutes into the half, Hill and Ribeiro almost had themselves a pair of goals. Hill shot just wide above the goal 39 seconds into the half, and a minute later, Ribeiro headed a ball just inches above the crossbar, though SMU’s Brown made a tremendous leap to prevent the ball from sneaking in.
The Mustangs began to threaten as the half went on. With 21 minutes left in the half, SMU had an opportunity to tie up the game with a corner after a questionable UConn foul, but the Husky defense tightened up and prevented the Mustangs from scoring.
“[The defense] was in the right place at the right time. You had Tanya [Altrui] hustling really hard, you had Tori [Patterson] keeping the defense nice and strong, so it was just a combination of all that that helped prevent the goals or the shots,” Armstrong said.
SMU started to seriously threaten with 15 minutes to go. In that slot of time, the Mustangs were awarded three corner kicks and fired off five shots, but were unable to capitalize as Armstrong and the rest of the Husky defense fended them off.
UConn will take home their second American Athletic Conference championship since joining the conference. This is their fifth conference championship in program history between the American and the Big East.
“We want to win. Period. Now, it happens to have a trophy, this game. That’s fine. We’ll take the trophy. But the bottom line is, you gotta fight to win each game you’re in,” head coach Len Tsantiris said. “But now, one chapter is over. Now, hopefully, we host [an NCAA tournament game]… that’s another chapter that we have to fight and survive.”
Of course, the Huskies would not have gotten here if it were not for their strong performance in the Semifinals against USF. On Friday, the Huskies kept the Bulls quiet as they held them to only 10 shots in a 2-0 victory. Seniors Rachel Hill and Stephanie Ribeiro netted goals.
Hill got the Huskies started 37 minutes into the game. Wide open atop the far corner of the box, she saw a golden opportunity and launched a laser into the opposite corner of the net, just out of reach of the USF goalie.
“I took [the ball] down the line a couple of times, didn’t really get shots off. So I just looked up and saw the opportunity and it was nice it went in,” Hill said.
With a 1-0 lead going into the second half, Ribeiro once again proved why she leads the nation in goals scored for the season. Her fancy footwork led her past a pool of USF defenders and she poked one into the net, giving the Huskies a comfortable 2-0 lead just four minutes into the second half.
Vinciguerra was given a red card with 12 minutes left on the clock when she kneed a USF player while she was lying on the ground in front of her. Tsantiris said that he thought Vinciguerra accidentally kneed her as she was moving her leg to walk away.
The Huskies will now await the results of the NCAA Selection Show, scheduled to take place on Monday, Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m. UConn will find out their tournament seed, whom they will be playing and if they will be hosting the first round.