After eight regular-season games over the past month, Belmont women’s soccer took a needed halftime break before starting up Ohio Valley Conference play, facing Southeast Missouri State University on Sunday.
“This has been a good week to recharge and so coming in, I think SEMO is one of those teams that it’s gonna be fast, it’s gonna be a hard-fought battle,” head coach Heather Henson said.
And Henson was right — the Bruins’ E.S. Rose Park game against the SEMO Redhawks came down to a double-overtime nail-biter. But in the end, sophomore Maci Pekmezian secured an important first OVC win for Belmont with her golden goal, assisted by freshman Summer Curtis.
The Bruins’ ten days of rest following their tie against Jacksonville State University Sep. 16 gave tested soccer players time to recover.
“Pure rest is so important — getting our sleep and fueling our bodies right,” Henson said.
Despite a proactive, “rub-dirt-on-the-wound” philosophy and a longing to get back on the field as soon as possible, Belmont goalie Sarah Doyle agreed with her coach.
“I think overall it’s been a good thing for the team, especially a lot of people who have been hurting,” Doyle said. “They’ve had a good chance to get rested.”
On Sunday, however, it was graduate student Andrea “Andy” Leitner’s turn to guard the goal for Belmont. Recording six saves and a clean sheet against SEMO, the keeper’s impact on the team reaches beyond the goalposts, Henson said before the game.
During Belmont’s 0-5 losing game against Georgia State University Aug. 29, Leitner was scheduled to replace Doyle for the second half, but instead of taking her place between the goalposts, Leitner walked up to Henson with intention and selflessness.
“She said, ‘Coach, Sarah needs to stay in the game. She is playing so well, this is going to be great for her confidence, she needs to continue to be in there,’” Henson said.
The coach responded to Leitner: ‘“Do you know what you’re doing?’ And she goes, ‘yes, but it’s not about me, it’s about this team and at this moment, it’s about helping Sarah grow, and making her stronger mentally.’”
Doyle made 13 saves in the losing game against Georgia State, but despite the defeat, she came out more confident because of her teammate, she said.
“I think especially having Andy here helps me so much about the mental part of soccer. Because being a keeper, it’s probably almost 85% mental because you feel like you get scored on and it’s all your fault,” Doyle said.
This is what Belmont women’s soccer is all about, Henson said. Selflessness, trust and accountability are what make them a family, and a competitive team.
The Bruins’ 3-1-4 record going into conference play might not seem convincing, but both Henson and Doyle are optimistic for the team’s 2021-2022 OVC run.
“I’m happy with where they are at,” Henson said. “It is college athletics, right? You just never know what’s going to happen from day to day, so we roll with the punches that come.”
“Through those results — wins, losses and ties — the bigger question is, ‘Have we learned and grown in our game?’ And I would say yes.”
Doyle believes her teammates’ “tight-knit” bonds and their daily accountability for 1% improvement will make for a successful game plan, she said.
“I think this is gonna be a really good conference play season, so I feel like everyone should keep an eye out, because while we’ve only won the OVC once; I feel it happen again this year,” Doyle said.
The team’s off-field confidence comes down to trusting the on-field process, Henson said, with room to improve in defensive restarts and overall communication.
And with the depth of their talented bench, distributing their eight goals over six women, the Bruins believe in a trophy.
“Championships are hard to come by,” Henson said. “And we’re going to work our hardest to make it happen, but in the end, winning a conference championship or not, that one thing is not going to define our family or our team’s success on this season.”
“But don’t get me wrong — they’re hungry for another ring.”
Following Sunday’s win against SEMO, seven conference games stand between women’s soccer and the OVC Championship tournament. Next up: Belmont will take on Austin Peay at E.S. Rose Park on Sep. 30.
PHOTO: The Bruins playing the Western Kentucky Toppers at E.S. Rose Park earlier this season. Belmont Vision / David Pang.
This article was written by Jessica Mattsson.