Michelle Young is down to her last chance to lead the North Texas soccer team to the NCAA tournament.
That might not be an entirely bad set of circumstances for the Mean Green heading into an opening-round game against Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt soccer tournament that will begin today on the campus of South Alabama.
UNT enters the event as the No. 1 seed after finishing in a three-way tie for the Sun Belt regular-season title and winning the tiebreaker over Middle Tennessee and Florida International.
Young’s performance throughout the season was one of the biggest reasons UNT finished 13-4-2, including an 8-1-1 mark in Sun Belt play.
UNT beat FAU (5-12) 2-1 in their only meeting this season.
“I like that our best offensive player is a senior,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said. “It means more to her. She wants to go to the NCAAs and not just go, but make a run and win a national championship. We always think big in this program. We think we can play with anyone.”
Young is a big reason for the confidence the Mean Green carries into the tournament. She has scored a team-high 10 goals to pace a balanced UNT offense that features four players who have at least six goals on the year.
UNT will need Young and fellow forwards Karla Pineda and Amber Haggerty to score the key goals the Mean Green will need to win the eight-team event. Pineda has seven goals, while Haggerty has six.
Defender Kelsey Hodges has also contributed offensively, scoring seven goals.
UNT’s strength for most of the season has been its defense, but it’s been a run of goals in key games late in the year that helped the Mean Green tie for the conference title.
UNT scored multiple goals in all but one outing in a nine-game unbeaten streak that ended with a 2-0 loss to Western Kentucky in the Mean Green’s regular-season finale.
“We feel good about our chances,” Hodges said. “We are very confident going in. Being the No. 1 seed helps, especially because we will be able to accept that trophy on Tuesday night. We have had a week of rest. That helps as well.”
UNT has won seven total Sun Belt titles since 2001, including each of the last two regular-season titles, but has not won the conference tournament since winning back-to-back tournaments in 2004 and 2005.
That is the last goal Young wants to reach before concluding her remarkable college career.
“It would be amazing to make a run in the NCAAs,” Young said. “I have never been, so it would be an incredible experience for me. Winning back-to-back conference titles was amazing. Winning the tournament is that one thing we haven’t done. It’s the next step.”
Young enters the tournament ranked fifth in UNT history with 40 goals and was the Sun Belt’s co-Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
“Michelle’s speed is a lot of it, but it is also her tenacity,” Hedlund said of the reasons behind her success. “She’s extremely intense and for her size is very physical. She is one of our best conditioned athletes. She’s the whole package. Every scouting report that we read on us, Michelle is the first person they want to take out, but we have the other two [Pineda and Haggerty], so you can’t double her.”
Young has scored four goals in UNT’s last four games.
“I started off shaky at the beginning of the season but then started getting more comfortable with the girls up top,” Young said. “Games started falling in my favor.”
UNT has relied heavily on Young while Pineda and Haggerty, a pair of freshmen, have adjusted to playing on the college level.
Young’s performance in a critical role is one reason UNT was able to win another conference title, and is one of the biggest reasons the Mean Green likes its chances in the Sun Belt tournament.
“Getting the ball to Michelle is one of our biggest keys,” Hodges said. “She has stepped up her game the last half of conference play and shown that she is a leader. She is a senior and is ready to win the tournament and go on the NCAA tournament.”
Four earn All-SBC honors
Young, Pineda, Hodges and senior midfielder Carly McDowell were all named to the All-Sun Belt team that was announced at the pre-tournament banquet Tuesday night.
Young, Pineda, Hodges were all first-team selections, while McDowell, a senior midfielder, was a second-team pick.
UNT did not have a player earn any of the superlative honors despite winning the tiebreaker for the conference title and earning the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
MTSU midfielder Paige Goeglein was named the Offensive Player of the Year, WKU’s Ali Stahlke was named the Defensive Player of the Year, MTSU midfielder Kate Loye the Freshman of the Year and MTSU’s Aston Rhoden the Coach of the Year.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .