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Veteran leadership leads Arkansas soccer

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FAYETTEVILLE — What Arkansas senior midfielder Kayla McKeon said the older Razorbacks tell the younger Razorbacks heading into Saturday’s NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament, the Utah Valley Wolverines proved Wednesday to the Memphis Tigers.

By virtue of a stunning 1-0 upset over the more major American Athletic Conference Tigers Wednesday in Greenville, N.C., the granted a first round bye nationally eighth-ranked SEC champion Razorbacks meet Utah Valley instead of Memphis in Saturday’s second round of the tournament in Greenville.

“We definitely understand it’s one and done,” McKeon told Arkansas media Wednesday of the Razorbacks making their seventh program NCAA Tournament, the last four consecutively. “And if we don’t show up that day we won’t finish how we want to. So to communicate that to the younger players what that environment is going to look like is really helpful. We’re an old, wise team.”

And match against a Cinderella apparently wise enough to play it one slipper at a time.

Asked in Greenville about the Wolverines’ next game after her goal upset Memphis, Sadie Brockbank replied, “We haven't talked much about Arkansas. I honestly have no idea how they play. But I'm excited to keep on rolling.”

No doubt Arkansas Coach Colby Hale and Utah Valley Coach Chris LeMay after the Wolverines’ first-ever NCAA Soccer Tournament victory started Wednesday night forming scouting reports that prognosticators didn’t assume would be necessary.

Because of COVID-19 concerns the entire 64-team tournament is played within North Carolina instead of starting at regional sites that had Arkansas hosting in 2019 for the last tournament.

Because of COVID and some leagues cancelling their fall seasons, the NCAA Tournament was moved to spring.

Utah Valley, 13-4-4, played its entire schedule starting in January.

So Arkansas, 11-3 overall, went 7-1 with an entirely SEC autumn schedule while winning the SEC regular season and then in the SEC Tournament defeated Auburn and South Carolina before losing its fifth consecutive SEC Tournament final, this time to Vanderbilt.

For the spring, with a match against Kansas canceled, the Razorbacks officially went 2-1 beating Missouri State and Arkansas State and losing to St. Louis, and last played April 10 in what was an exhibition game rematch with Arkansas State.

The Wolverines obviously have played more often lately but the Razorbacks actually seem looking forward to starting the NCAA Tournament fresh rather than off a stressful SEC Tournament week ended in a championship game defeat.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Hale said. “We have gone into past NCAA Tournaments a little tired and worn out and that won’t be the case this year.”

McKeon concurs.

“Three games and sometimes four games in a week was hard on our legs,” McKeon said. “So it’s going to be nice to go into the tournament fresh. I think not playing as many games isn’t going to hurt us.”

McKeon said she’s grateful her senior year didn’t end with the SEC Tournament upset loss to Vanderbilt.

“Everyone who played in that game and was there understood that wasn’t our best showing,” McKeon said. “Knowing we have the NCAA Tournament kept everybody motivated to keep training really hard and show the country that we are the best team in the SEC and we are capable of making a run for it.”

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