The second-seeded Liberty Lady Flames soccer team (16-5-1) defeated the two-time defending champions and first-seeded Radford Highlanders (15-3-2) 5-0 Sunday, Nov. 10 to win their fourth Big South Championship and their first title since 2005.
As the final whistle blew, the Lady Flames stormed the field in an exuberant group hug around keeper Holly Van Noord, the redshirt freshman who finished the game with her 14th shutout of the season.
“It is absolutely surreal,” junior forward Geena Swentik said. “It hasn’t even hit me how amazing this is.”
Liberty had previously lost to Radford 3-0 in an Oct. 9 away contest but dominated Radford in the neutral-field rematch hosted by Coastal Carolina.
“We were so pumped (to play Radford again),” Swentik said. “We knew that the last game (wasn’t reflected in) the score, and if we just kept playing our game of soccer and high pressure, we would break them down and start putting goals in the back of the net.”
In their first match, the Highlanders outshot the Lady Flames 13-9.
“The girls had a lot of respect of Radford at that time and played a little bit timid,” Liberty Head Coach Jessica Hain said. “The Liberty team was still looking for their rhythm … the girls are playing a lot better than they were at the middle of the season, (they are) peaking at the right time. I think they were ready to see Radford again.”
Liberty opened the match with high energy and aggressive play, controlling the ball and the pace of the game. Two early crosses through Radford’s penalty box failed to yield any points, but the Lady Flames kept up the pressure.
Sophomore midfielder Brittany Aanderud then put Liberty on top early with a goal in the 14th minute. Aanderud settled a bouncing ball at the top of the penalty box with a careful touch toward the center of the arc and followed through with a powerful line drive shot to the bottom left corner of the goal, giving the Lady Flames a 1-0 lead.
Less than five minutes later, junior forward Alanna Dunkle sent an arcing cross through the goal box, where Swentik was standing at the far right post. Swentik volleyed the ball out of the air and into the back of the net for Liberty’s second goal.
The Lady Flames ended the first half up 2-0. Although Radford outshot Liberty 9-8 in the first 45 minutes of the game, Liberty had more scoring opportunities inside the penalty box.
“It was important for us to win both halves,” Hain said. “We said at halftime, ‘Pretend that the game is 0-0,’ because Radford is a great team, and they know how to win championships, and they’ve been here the past two years.”
Despite aggressive play by Radford to start the second half, Liberty held firm with a combination of solid defense and continued pressure. Swentik added to the Lady Flames offense, notching her second goal in the 53rd minute when Aanderud passed the ball up the right side of the field to Dunkle, who then threaded a low cross to Swentik who sent the ball into the back of the net on her first touch.
“The two goals came from (Dunkle) and (Aanderud) doing amazing work and some great passes,” Swentik said. “I’m just so glad that I could get my job done and do whatever I could to help the team.”
Rebecca Smith and Julia Delgatti added goals in the 73rd and 85th minutes, clinching the win for the Lady Flames.
Liberty outshot Radford 19-14 and placed 14 shots on goal compared to six by the Highlanders.
Although offense usually gets more attention, Hain said the team’s commitment to defense across the entire field was one of the major reasons they were able to pull off the upset victory.
The win guaranteed the Lady Flames an automatic bid into the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Tournament, which will begin Friday, Nov. 15 and will take place at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary Grove, S.C. Liberty will be playing the No. 1 seed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Friday, Nov. 15.
On its path to the championship game, Liberty snuck past Presbyterian College 1-0 in the quarterfinals and beat High Point University 4-1 in the semifinal match Friday, Nov. 8.
Several Lady Flames players were recognized for their play both in the tournament and in the regular season.
Aanderud, Dunkle, Swentick and Casey Norris were named to the All-Tournament Team with Aanderud being named the Tournament MVP.
Aanderud and Norris were also named to the Big South First Team All-Conference, while Boone and Van Noord were named to the Second Team All-Conference. Julia Delgatti and Noord were named to the All-Freshman Team.