ANDERSON, S.C. - Meetings with three opponents who reached the NCAA postseason in 2011, including two who reached the Sweet 16, along with six regular-season contests against regionally-ranked teams highlight Anderson’s 2012 women’s soccer schedule as released by head coach Samar Azem on Thursday.
“We have completed what we consider a very challenging and demanding schedule,” said Azem. “I like our strength of schedule. We play some very solid teams to start off the season that will prepare us for a very strong conference schedule. We have a large recruiting class coming in and I think being able to play very strong teams in the beginning will help us see how well we work together and discover our strengths and weaknesses.”
The Trojans will return 13 players, including nine starters off last season’s squad that posted a 9-10-1 record and advanced to the semifinals of the Food Lion South Atlantic Tournament under first-year head coach Samar Azem. The top five scorers from last season will be back on the pitch, while the nucleus of a stellar defensive unit that set a new school record with seven shutouts will also return. Five of the returnees earned either first or second-team All-Conference at the conclusion of last season, with AU claiming a No. 10 ranking in the Southeast Region during the regular season.
“No one was expecting us to do what we did last season [in conference],” added Azem. “So it was easy to fly under the radar and surprise some people. It will be more difficult this year because we are on their radar and we need to be prepared for that. We are no longer the big underdogs.”
Anderson will be tested early, as it opens the regular season against a pair of Sunshine State Conference teams at Columbus State’s Collegiate Invitational. The Trojans square off against 2011 Elite 8 participant Tampa in the season-opener on Aug. 31 and just two days later AU will face first-year head coach Brittany Jones’ Florida Southern Moccasins at the Lady Cougars’ Walden Soccer Complex. Last season, Tampa was 16-6-2, reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals and finished the season ranked eighth nationally, while Florida Southern posted an overall 7-7-1 record and earned a No. 7 ranking in the South Region.
“That is a very good tournament. We will see a high level of talent and competition,” added Azem. “Both Tampa and Florida Southern are very strong.”
The Trojans open their home slate by playing host to a pair of Conference Carolinas’ schools, as Converse College visits Trojan Stadium on Wednesday, Sept. 5, and Erskine invades Anderson on Saturday, Sept. 8. AU will be looking for its fourth consecutive win past its closest rival after blanking the Flying Fleet, 1-0, in Due West last September.
“After Columbus State, we come back to play teams we have played on a consistent basis and that we are more familiar with,” noted Azem. “They will be great competition.”
Four days later, the Trojans visit Georgia College for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Bobcat Field. The Bobcats will be looking to improve upon a 5-16 record from a year ago, with five of their top seven scorers returning.
Anderson opens South Atlantic Conference action on the road against Catawba on Sept. 15, then returns home to welcome Brevard (Sept. 19) and Tusculum (Sept. 22) to Trojan Stadium for a two-game homestand. The Trojans edged Tusculum twice last season, with both matches going to overtime. AU scored in the 108th minute to down the Pioneers, 1-0, in the regular season, then slipped past TC with a pair of penalty kicks in the opening round of the 2011 Food Lion SAC Tournament. Tusculum posted a 10-7-2 record and finished the season ranked ninth in the NCAA Southeast Region.
“Our nonconference schedule will give us an opportunity to work on things we need to outside of league play,” said Azem. “Our conference schedule is always strong. Every game will be very, very competitive. We need to expect that and be prepared.”
Azem and the Trojans close out September by traveling to Lincoln Memorial (8-8-2) on Sept. 29, then step out of conference play by paying a visit to Valdosta State (Oct. 2). LMU earned a berth in last year’s conference tournament with a sixth-place finish in the regular season before falling on the road at Newberry, while Valdosta State made an appearance in the Gulf South Conference Championship match en route to posting an 11-6-2 record in its inaugural season.
The Trojans return home for a brief one-match homestand versus Mars Hill on Oct. 6, before calling on Newberry (Oct. 10). The Wolves went 12-7 last season and earned a berth in the SAC Tournament semifinals before falling to eventual tourney champion Wingate.
Anderson plays host to the defending SAC champion Bulldogs (16-4) on Saturday, Oct. 13. Wingate earned its’ first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament last season by upsetting top-seeded and fifth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne, 4-2, in the title match, before falling to 25th-ranked North Georgia in the first round of the Southeast Regional.
The Trojans wrap up the nonconference portion of the schedule with a visit to Appalachian Athletic Conference runner-up Columbia College on Oct. 17, then travel to Carson-Newman for their final road contest of the season (Oct. 20).
The Trojans welcome Lenoir-Rhyne to Trojan Stadium for the final regular-season contest on Saturday, Oct. 27. The Bears will be looking to build on back-to-back South Atlantic Conference Regular Season Championships and a pair of berths in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Finals. Last season, L-R finished last season ranked ninth in the nation with a 17-3-1 mark and posted a perfect 9-0 conference mark.
“Our goal is to be a successful program on the national level and go to the NCAA Tournament,” concluded Azem. “We tell our players that there are two ways to do that - Be one of the top teams in the region and win the tournament. We’ve created a schedule where we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can achieve one or the other or both. It comes down to whether we come prepared to do that game in and game out. There are no easy games on our schedule.
We’re in a good position with the experience we have coming back, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to propel us to be able to compete against these teams and reach the NCAAs.”
The 2012 South Atlantic Conference Tournament will begin on Tuesday, Oct. 30, with the quarterfinal rounds being held on the campus of the four highest seeds.