The big dance is headed to the Plains as Auburn hosts Samford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s Auburn’s first NCAA bid in three years and the first-ever tournament meeting between the in-state schools. Auburn leads the all-time series over Samford 11-2-2.
The last time the Tigers fell to the Bulldogs was in 2014 while Auburn’s most recent win came earlier this year in the first game of the season. The Tigers rallied from behind to win 2-1 and preserve a five-game unbeaten streak against the in-state foe.
“Boy, Samford is a really tough draw,” said Auburn head coach Karen Hoppa. “To be a seeded team, a Top 16 seed in the country, we’re definitely not playing one of the bottom 16 teams. Thrilled to see our number come up, but tough first-round draw."
The tournament bracket is specifically designed to ensure that the top 16 teams in the country will not be able to play each other until the latter stages of the tournament. Thus preserving high-ranking matchups until later tournament rounds.
This in turn also gives lower-seeded schools a chance to make a run at glory against high-seeded opponents early in the tournament.
Auburn is one of seven Southeastern Conference teams with a bid to the NCAAs and is making up for lost time since the Tigers narrowly missed out of the tournament last year.
"Ever since [last year's] selection show this team has been on a mission," Hoppa said. "I'm so proud to see our name come up with a number by it, meaning we're one of the Top-16 seeds. I'm really proud of this team and what they've accomplished during the regular season.
I think a lot of people would say we over-achieved by doing that because we are so young. But our young team has grown, and I certainly don’t feel we are young when I put the squad out there.”
Samford is looking to extend a 12-game win streak after sweeping the Southern Conference’s Women’s Tournament and Championship. The Bulldogs upended the previous year’s champion, Furman, 4-2 to keep their conference record at an unbeaten 9-0.
Samford has only been to the NCAA tournament six times in the program’s over 20-year history, with its most recent bid claimed in 2019. The Bulldogs have only advanced beyond the first round of the tournament once, with a win over Vanderbilt in penalties in 2005.
Samford’s offense is led by super senior Alyssa Frazier, who was named to the SOCON First Team All-Conference after recording a team-high 10 assists and seven goals scored en route to the title. Logging over 1,200 minutes on the pitch with 20 consecutive starts this season and matchup experience against Auburn under her belt, limiting Frazier will be a focus for Auburn’s defensive gameplan.
In the Bulldogs’ 2-1 loss to Auburn earlier this season, Mary Raymond scored the lone Samford goal to start her team-leading goal count that now sits at eight. Raymond joins Samford's goalkeeper Morgan McAslan and Lindsay Origliasso on the Second Team All-Conference. Last year, McAslan posted an almost unbelievable 0.51 goals-against average after allowing seven goals through 13 games.
Samford isn’t to be underestimated. This Bulldog squad is battle-tested and is playing some of their best soccer this season. Peaking at the right time is what one would call it.
Peaking at the right time is exactly what Auburn midfielder Hannah Waesch thinks the Tigers are doing too.
“It's gonna be a really great adventure for this team to keep on growing, and we’re peaking at the right time, so it’s gonna be a wild ride,” said Waesch.
Aside from the match against Arkansas in the semifinals, Maddie Prohaska played some of her best ball in the SEC Tournament. The sophomore had a few key saves in the early minutes to keep Auburn afloat and maintained a clean, coordinated line of communication with her backline when things got touch-and-go in the matches’ final minutes.
On that backline, is SEC Defender of the Year Alyssa Malonson. Malonson has been one of the Tigers’ most active players in almost every match this season, defending almost every blade of grass in her reach and taking the ball the full length of the field for Tiger scoring opportunities.
The defender has played almost every other position at one point or another in her long career and proves that to benefit her gameplay with two goals and four assists to her name this season, including a goal against Samford to get her Tigers on the board in what would eventually be a comeback win.
“I’m not scared,” Malonson said. "They're a pretty physical team. They're probably going to come out with everything they have. I wouldn't expect anything less. I'm excited."
Offensively, Auburn spreads the glory around.
Anna Haddock started off the season on an eight-goal-scoring run in 10 games before cooling off midway through the schedule. She still leads the team in goals scored, assists, points and shots taken by a mile.
However, Marissa Arias and Sydney Richards seem to have taken the reigns for most touches in the opponents’ final third. Arias is one of the most passionate Tigers on the pitch and assisted Richards in the Tigers’ game-clinching goal against South Carolina in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
Auburn will get to play on its home turf at least one more time this season with its players rejoicing in the opportunity for a comeback game, after leaving the last match and senior night in Auburn with a nasty taste in its mouth after a 2-0 loss to Arkansas.
“Our last home game we didn’t send off our seniors the way we wanted to, so this is another chance for our seniors to play on our home field one more time," Waesch said.
How Auburn has faired in the NCAAs
Hoppa’s teams were averaging at least one NCAA Tournament win a season through the mid-2010s before falling into a slump, missing out on bids to the tournament almost entirely in recent years.
"Our norm is being in the NCAA [Tournament], and these past couple of years we haven't really been achieving our goals," said Hailey Whitaker. "We made it a goal at the beginning of this season that this is what we wanted to achieve, so it's really exciting to be seeded that high this year.”
The Tigers' last trip to the NCAA tournament ended with a 2-0 loss to Minnesota in 2018, with their last win dating back to 2017 over Hofstra. A year prior, Auburn saw the heights of success with its first-ever Elite Eight appearance, downing Florida at home in Gainseville in the Sweet 16.
Auburn hosts Samford at the Auburn Soccer Complex on Nov. 12 at 5 p.m. CST in a winner-take-all NCAA first-round matchup. The match will be streamed on the SECN+.
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Larry is a senior studying journalism with a minor in sociology. He is from Enterprise, Alabama and is in his third year with The Auburn Plainsman.