Conference title hopes alive for UNCW women’s soccer

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On Sunday, the University of North Carolina Wilmington women’s soccer team has the opportunity to equal a school record for most wins in a season with 13. But will it be the best team in Seahawk history?

No one has a better perspective on the question than coach Paul Cairney, who is in his 20th season as coach.

“The wins don’t mean anything if we don’t win a championship,” said Cairney, whose team has a record of 12-5-1. “To win a championship, you have to win on Sundays.”

Winning on Sundays has been a challenge for this year’s squad, which had failed to win its last three such matches before a dominating 8-0 win against last-placed Towson on Oct. 18. That win elevated the Seahawks into a first-place tie in the Colonial Athletic Association standings, and earned the team a berth in the post-season conference tournament.

The star of the tournament-clinching win was senior forward Maddie McCormick, who scored three goals for her second career hat trick. The first came in her freshman season, also against Towson. The CAA honored McCormick as the women’s soccer player of the week, the second time she has brought home that award this season. The national website TopDrawerSoccer.com named McCormick to the Oct. 20 Women’s Team of the Week.

The win capped a big home weekend for UNCW, which surged past James Madison University in the CAA standings with a 3-0 win against the Dukes on Friday, Oct. 16.

The Seahawks play host to the College of Charleston (2-5-1 in conference) for their final regular-season game. The senior day game is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the UNCW soccer stadium on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Hopes are alive for the Seahawks to play at home during the season-ending tournament. If they finish first or second in the conference they would earn a bye in the first weekend and host a semifinal match. Finishing third or fourth would give them the right to host a quarterfinal game before traveling for a semifinal matchup if they win.

Where the Seahawks finish in the standings will depend not only on whether they win their final game, but how other CAA teams fare. UNCW is tied with Hofstra for first with 16 points, but Hofstra has two games this weekend and can clinch the title by winning both or with a win and a tie. William & Mary, Northeastern and JMU all are in position to move up.

One motivating factor for this year’s squad is last year’s team. After the 2012 team advanced to the CAA tournament final and the 2013 squad returned to the tournament, the 2014 team struggled with a losing record, finishing 7-9-2.

“It was motivation to come out strong this season,” said senior Stephanie Bronson, adding the 2014 team may have played too complacently. “Last year proved we can’t be like that.”

One difference from last year’s team is energy, several players said.

“We’re a team that runs on energy,” Bronson said. “We’re a team that scores first and when we do, we build that energy.”

Another is experience. The Seahawks field 11 seniors and eight juniors.

“With so many seniors, we wanted to make this season the best season we’ve had here,” McCormick said. “Everyone had a positive attitude, no matter what. We were pushing each other all season and that’s really helped.”

After suffering a shaky start by losing their first two games of the season, the UNCW players regrouped, said senior Morgan Leyble.

“We really came out hard, everybody got their stuff done this summer,” she said. “They knew it was a big season. Half of our team is seniors. We really want it. We’re trying to leave it all on the field.”

While several players have contributed regularly on offense, a key reason for the success of this year’s team is defense, Cairney said.

“We have a stable back four,” he said. “Last year we didn’t have that. We flipped and we flopped and we changed. As a coach, you have to be sure you’re not giving up goals.”

Senior goaltender Carolyn Huddy, who posted two shutouts over the weekend, agreed.

“Our defense is really strong, the back four is working well together,” Huddy said. “Everyone plays their role and brings a ton of energy.”

The final success of this year’s team will likely be measured against the 2009 Seahawk squad, which finished third in the regular season but won the tournament on the road in Boston at host Northeastern. That team beat James Madison,1-0, in the final and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament, where it lost in the first round, 3-0 to Georgia.

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