Saydie Holland seals Liberty soccer CUSA Championship with late goal against Aggies

As the sun beamed down on the Robert Mack Caruthers Field in Ruston, Louisiana, the Liberty Flames women’s soccer team took to the pitch to face off against the New Mexico State Aggies in the long-awaited Conference USA Championship match. 

Having suffered a disappointing 2-0 loss to New Mexico State in Lynchburg earlier in the season, Liberty looked to take down the Aggies when it mattered most — on championship turf.   

Following a 4-0 semifinal win against the tournament host, Louisiana Tech, Liberty held the highest margin of victory in the tournament entering its final contest. Donning bright red jerseys, the Lady Flames approached the field ready to fight for the conference crown and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, an honor the team had not achieved since spring of 2020.  

In the first half, both teams came out with an attacker’s mindset, earning several chances to score. After numerous quality efforts to push past the New Mexico defense, a clearance from Liberty allowed sophomore forward Ava Goodman to take control of the ball and push up the pitch, making a direct pass to her fellow sophomore forward Allison Hansford. 

Hansford controlled the ball and made it to the penalty area, where she was fouled by an Aggie defender, resulting in a penalty shot in the 19th minute of play. 

Senior Rachel DeRuby, the CUSA Midfielder of the Year, stepped up to take the one-on-one shot for Liberty. After her powerful right-footed penalty shot in the semifinals that helped her team earn a victory, DeRuby was able to repeat success, finding the back of the net and lifting the score to 1-0. 

The strike by DeRuby sent the ball in the lower left corner right past the keeper, ending New Mexico State’s three-match clean sheet. 

As the match continued, the Aggies refused to let the Lady Flames go unanswered, scoring the equalizer at the 35th minute off a free kick and ending the first half 1-1.  

Going into the second half, both teams knew that a single goal would be game-changing. With both sides racking up fouls, the game had an added sense of aggression as time slowly began to expire. With just five minutes remaining, Liberty desperately searched for life. 

 With a set piece chance, DeRuby saw her opportunity, launching a crossing pass in the vicinity of graduate midfielder Saydie Holland. 

Holland sent the ball off her head, driving it into the back of the net in emphatic fashion. As the scoreboard shifted to 2-1, the Lady Flames roared with excitement, knowing that a conference title was just minutes away. The goal was Holland’s 8th of the season and her 5th game-winning score. 

New Mexico State attempted a last-minute resurgence, but once the final whistle blew, the Lady Flames exploded with joy as the crucial match ended in their favor. Happy tears and smiles were spread among the team as it hoisted the CUSA Championship trophy.

“It was a really tough and gritty match,” Liberty Head Coach Lang Wedemeyer told media postgame. “We were knocking on the door there at the end, creating a lot of chances. It was so gratifying to see us break through at the end. To God be the glory. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  

DeRuby walked away with Offensive MVP honors, having recorded three goals and two assists throughout the tournament. Junior goalkeeper Ainsley Leja took home the Defensive MVP title, with a four-save performance on Sunday and just one goal allowed throughout the tournament. 

With this win, the Liberty Lady Flames secured an automatic place in the NCAA tournament. It was announced in Monday’s NCAA Selection Show that the team will take on the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs to begin the tournament Friday, Nov. 10 at 4 p.m. in Athens, Georgia. 

Jolly is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion

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