Florida International, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic took their shots at Kelsey Hodges and her roommates last week during the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
All three teams ran at the Mean Green’s back line, tried to send balls behind it to run down and came to the same conclusion: UNT’s defense is tough to crack.
The Mean Green didn’t give up a goal in a series of games that fell into a perfect rhythm — 1-0, 1-0, 1-0.
And just like that, the Mean Green was back in the NCAA tournament, where UNT will face Texas Tech (15-5-1) in a first-round game at 7 tonight in Lubbock.
There are many reasons UNT (16-4-2) is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since back-to-back trips in 2004 and 2005. Freshman Amber Haggerty scored the game-winning goals in both the Sun Belt semifinal and final, while goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine saved every shot to come her way while earning Most Outstanding Player honors.
The biggest reason for UNT’s success, though, might be its back four that has anchored a defense that at times has resembled a brick wall.
“That is the strength of our team,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said. “To go through the conference tournament and not give up a goal was huge. With those four, our defensive [midfielders] and Jackie, a team is going to have to beat six to score on us.”
Not many teams have scored on the Mean Green during one of the finest seasons in program history. UNT has allowed only 20 goals in 22 games, six of which came in a pair of 3-2 losses to nationally ranked opponents Oklahoma State and Long Beach State.
UNT’s back four today will consist of Hodges, Tori Adamé, Tess Graham and Shelly Holt.
Kerestine has been terrific all season, but she often stands around and watches what transpires on the other end of the field as her defense turns away opponents. Kerestine is averaging 3.5 saves per game.
Hodges, Adamé, Holt and Alli Guderian, a freshman defender who has started 10 games, live together.
“The chemistry we have is big,” Hodges said. “We all get along really well on and off the field. We communicate well. It helps to know your teammates on and off the field. You know how people will react to certain situations. We know how to communicate.”
That communication could be vital when UNT faces Tech today. UNT expects a few thousand Tech fans to make their way to the soccer field after the Red Raiders’ football game against Kansas.
“It will be intimidating for some of the younger girls, but I love playing in that kind of atmosphere,” Hodges said. “It will help fuel our fire.”
So will the opportunity to make history.
UNT advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2004 and 2005 only to fall in first-round matches to Texas and SMU, respectively.
The Mean Green believes it has a chance to break through against Tech, a team it lost to 1-0 in Lubbock two years ago.
“We feel that if we play our game, it will be close and that it could go either way,” Hedlund said. “Their athletic director is making a big deal about it and is trying to get people to come over from the football game. We could be playing in front of 3 or 4 thousand, but we are ready for it. We have played some tough games on the road at places like Oklahoma State.”
UNT didn’t crack in those environments, thanks largely to its corps of defenders that led the way last week when the Mean Green pitched a shutout in the Sun Belt tournament. A repeat performance today could help UNT post its first NCAA tournament win.
“Playing so well in the tournament definitely boosted our confidence,” Adamé said. “John always stresses defense. Our priority is always to keep the ball out of the back of our own net.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .