After a 1-1 draw against UTSA, Southern Miss Soccer was crowned as the Conference USA West Division Champions for the first time in program history.
“I’m just so proud of these young ladies, how hard they’ve worked and stayed resilient in tough times,” Head Coach Mohammed El-Zare said. “Looking back nine years ago, people didn’t believe it could be done at Southern Miss, but I’ve got one thing to tell you. It can be done at Southern Miss and you can do it in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.”
The milestone marked a height El-Zare and his teams had never reached before, doing so with a squad of 11 freshmen and after a short turnaround from last spring. El-Zare credited the mix of young talent and leadership from returning veterans to the team’s success in challenging conditions.
“It was hard in the beginning but the leadership within this team, the seniors, and everybody from the 2020 season, they stepped up,” El-Zare said. “They are experienced in being in those competitive environments and they helped us get through.”
Coming into the game, the Golden Eagles needed a win or tie to earn the title and UTSA fought for the chance to spoil it. The returning veterans and four graduate students had even more to prove in a game with a chance to make history.
“The seniors this year all came back because we care so much about this program,” senior goalkeeper Kendell Mindnich said. “We wanted it so bad and I know for me, I’ve put so much of my heart and soul into this program and I just want to see it do well. I want the freshmen, the newcomers to just know how much I care and I want to blend that into them to know that our culture matters here and we just want to win championships.”
Mindnich allowed a goal shortly after the start of the second half but minimized UTSA’s attack throughout the game. Even though the Roadrunners outshot Southern Miss 17-7, Mindnich’s desire showed in her final home game performance as she recorded nine saves. El-Zare credited both her play and leadership for the game’s result.
“Not only does she bring an impact on the field, but she mentors younger players. In the second overtime, she stepped up on the sideline and coached the players,” El-Zare said. “I didn’t say a word in that second overtime between the break…as a coach, you’ve got to trust and let go and let them at times solve the problems. She led us and got us the result that we needed.”
“She’s the best keeper I have ever played with,” freshman Ilana Izquierdo said. “She’s so good as a player [and] as a person, and she’s the best leader we have here. She’s always working so hard.”
And on the attack, it was the freshman talent, Izquierdo, who netted a goal in the 67th minute, tying the game and earning her seventh score of the season.
“It was a free kick for us and I wasn’t expecting the ball but it was perfect timing,” Izquierdo said.
Izquierdo’s goal pushed Southern Miss to its fifth overtime of the season and helped earn the draw after two scoreless periods.
The Golden Eagles earn a bye as a number one seed in the C-USA Tournament, which will be held in Boca Raton, Florida. Southern Miss will face the winner of Charlotte vs. FAU on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.