LITTLE ROCK – Ariel Galletti couldn’t handle the stress.
The UALR junior midfielder knew that her team’s season hung in the balance 450 miles away in Mobile, Ala., and there was nothing she could do to influence the outcome. If South Alabama defeated ULM last Sunday, the Trojans would be in the Sun Belt Tournament for the first time since 2009. With a ULM tie or victory, UALR’s season would be over.
So without a way to control her own destiny, and with the tension of a tie game in the second half causing too many worries, Galletti stopped watching the live statistics on her computer and decided to study for a test.
Her roommates – teammates Lexus VanPelt and Alyson Rohane – let her know the good news.
“Lexus and Alyson come running out of the dorm saying, ‘We made the tournament, oh my god!’ Galletti said. “It was really exciting.”
Most of team found out about their season’s extension in a similar fashion. Junior Betsy Blackwood had the stats running on her phone. First-year coach Adrian Blewitt saw South Alabama’s two late goals on his computer. When the Jaguars came away with a 3-1 victory, the good news for the Trojans meant their season-long goal had been accomplished.
They were going to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
“It was the main goal that we had,” Blewitt said. “I think the girls have got a new lease on life and a sense of accomplishment on achieving that. That’s how we want them to feel, and you go into a tournament now where it’s anybody’s. It’s wide open.”
UALR, as the conference’s eighth seed, will take on regular-season champion Western Kentucky in a quarterfinal match in San Marcos, Texas, on Wednesday at 4 p.m. The Trojans lost by a slim 1-0 margin to the Hilltoppers when they met in Little Rock on Oct. 20.
The last time UALR made the Sun Belt Tournament, the team advanced all the way to the championship game against Denver. But in the years since then, the Trojans had slipped into a funk. The team lost 41 games from 2010-12 including 16 last season alone. But with the injection of a new coach in Blewitt and a revamped roster, UALR was a much better team in 2013.
The Trojans lost 16 games last season by an average of 4.13 goals per game. This season’s losses have only come by an average of two goals per game. And the team allowed 73 goals in 2012 but only 30 this season. After just two wins all of last season, the team has doubled that in 2013. The difference is stunning, and it’s one that might have the Trojans playing a dark-horse role next weekend in Texas.
“We’re not getting blown out,” Rohane said. “It’s not 3-0 by halftime. It’s usually – if there’s a score – it’s 1-0. It’s within reach of winning. It’s so much nicer playing games knowing that we should be winning these games rather than, ‘Let’s hold off as many goals as we can.’”
“It’s been a long three years, and I’m happy to be back this third year,” Blackwood added. “Having [Coach] Blewitt here, it’s been a complete change. This is the group of girls that I’d want to go to the tournament with, so I’m so happy to be going.”
With the improved statistics comes renewed hope and belief. Where last year’s team might have given up on itself, this year’s Trojans are confident entering the tournament.
They know that in a one-game situation, anything is possible. The rest of the league would be making a mistake to count out the ladies from Little Rock.
“The confidence is really great because Western Kentucky was one of the best games we played this season,” Blackwood said. “If we go in there with full confidence – and even though we may be the underdog – I think we’re going to come out on top.”
There’s some history on the Trojans’ side as well. Since the Sun Belt began tournament play in 2000, the top seed has defeated the eighth seed 12 out of 13 times.
That one victory by the No. 8 seed? That would be the Trojans in 2009 when they knocked off FIU 1-0 in overtime. UALR ran through fourth-ranked North Texas in the semifinal 1-0 before falling by that same score to No. 2 seed Denver in the championship game.
The top seed in the tournament has only won the tournament seven times since 2000 and just once in the last four seasons.
“Honestly, anything can happen,” Rohane said. “The seeds don’t mean anything. … We know we’re the team that everyone’s kind of like, ‘Oh no, we only beat them 1-0. They were tough. It was not an easy game.’ We’re that team. We’re the team going in with no expectations. We’re here to upset.”