Lady Toppers miss out on final two wins but still take Sun Belt title

WKU freshman forward Iris Dunn and Georgia Southern sophomore defender Anna Hilpertshauser stumble while battling for the ball during their game Friday night.  The Lady Toppers lost the game 0-1 but still clinched the Sun Belt regular season title. 

Jonah Phillips

Despite walking away from their final two games with a loss and a tie, the Lady Topper soccer team closed the regular season during Friday’s Senior Night as Sun Belt Conference champions.

 Because of their status, the Lady Toppers will be the No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, set to open on Nov. 6 in San Marcos, Texas.

WKU honored nine Lady Topper seniors before the game, a roster of players who have contributed to over 50 wins, a 2011 Sun Belt Tournament Championship appearance and this season’s regular season title.

Coach Jason Neidell started all nine seniors in Friday’s game. Among their ranks was forward Taryn O’Shea, who received her first career start and first game action since Oct. 29, 2010 after battling three ACL tears.

Senior Night pitted WKU (8-5-5, 6-2-0 Sun Belt Conference) against Georgia State (6-9-1, 4-4-0 SBC).

Lady Panther forward Ashley Nagy finished off forward Whitney Ravan’s cross in the 82nd minute to nudge Georgia State past WKU, 1-0 at the WKU Soccer Complex.

However, in light of a Louisiana-Lafayette loss at South Alabama on Thursday, WKU still clinched the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the SBC Tournament with a 6-2 mark in league play, totaling 18 points in league play on the season.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of bringing energy to the game, but it seems like we’ve come full circle now,” Neidell said. “I’ve always told our squad that the difference of the game is in the goal box, and (Georgia State) was just more aggressive than we were, and that made the difference of the game.”

This is the Lady Toppers’ first SBC regular season title since 2007 and just the second in the program’s history.

Senior midfielder Chrissy Tchoula said WKU’s struggles were on the offensive end Friday night.

“I think we played a very solid game possession-wise and in our defensive and middle third, but in the attacking third we need a lot more tenacity and we need a lot more fire in the box,” she said.

WKU had several good looks at equalizing before time expired, getting shots on goal from freshman midfielder Caitlin Hesse and freshman forward Iris Dunn. Georgia State goalkeeper Brie Haynes made a diving save of Iris Dunn’s launch with 29 seconds remaining to seal the loss for the Lady Toppers.

“We need somebody to just lay out and to put the ball in the back of the net,” Tchoula said. “That’s what we are lacking right now and that’s why we are having trouble scoring goals.”

The squad finished its regular season with a non-conference matchup at Evansville that went into two overtimes. After 110 minutes of play, the match ended in a 0-0 tie.

Sophomore goalkeeper Nikki Hall, who earned her first start of the season, was put to the test on the afternoon, but fended off all seven of Evansville’s shots on goal.

Hall was a force between the posts as a freshman last season. She became the second goalkeeper in WKU history to pitch eight shutouts in a single season, starting all 20 games.

The first overtime period was riddled with scoring opportunities for Evansville, but Hall remained stout between the posts and kept the match scoreless.

WKU took control in the second overtime period and had its best chance halted by goalkeeper Simone Busby as she saved an open goal shot from freshman forward Kelly Phipps.

“Our girls know we’ve lost two of our last games, and it’s time to go back to work, roll up the sleeves, and become a better attacking team over these next few weeks,” Neidell said.

The Lady Toppers will have the week off as they prepare for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Tchoula said it’s time for WKU to put up or shut up.

“It’s about putting it on the line,” Tchoula said. “Every game in the tournament, it’s not necessarily going to be the better team that wins. It’s the team that wants it more. We just have to want it more.”

As the regular-season champions, WKU will be the tournament’s No.1 seed and will face No. 8 seed Arkansas-Little Rock on Nov. 6 at 10 a.m.