The Panthers got the win they needed to inspire confidence heading into conference play this weekend. It was at this point last season, in a victory over the same team no less, when the Panthers transitioned from a winless team to a playoff caliber one that made a compelling case for a spot in the title match.
They did not, however, springboard to playoff contention straightaway. Relief from their losing ways may not have arrived as promptly as they would have anticipated.
Two of their next three matches resulted in losses, but, to the benefit of the Panthers, neither of the opponents were members of the Ohio Valley Conference. Non-conference play, as it bears repeating, cannot diminish or otherwise enhance a team’s likelihood of being in the mix come tournament time, as these matches are superseded by the weight of wins and losses against OVC rivals.
The conference schedule will commence rather early this year, as they encounter Tennessee-Martin on Friday and, after defeating them in the quarterfinals of the OVC tournament, Southeast Missouri on Sunday.
For starters, Southeast Missouri could well become the same middle of the pack, OVC tournament underachievers that they have been the past few seasons. The Redhawks, almost with systematic regularity, tend to burst out of the opening season match destined to reach the end of the conference competition minefield unscathed, but their burnout rate has so often drowned out their performance come September or October.
That noted, the Redhawks can nonetheless take solace in the uniformity at the top of the roster they brought back after a 5-8-5 record. Senior Esmie Gonzales at forward and junior Emily Holten emerged as a pairing that could generate goals for a team squeezed by a scarce supply of scoring chances to begin with. Back in high school, Gonzales broke the national record for the most goals scored by any high school soccer player in the history of the sport with 316, supplanting the previous record holder by a margin of 30.
What team can possibly trump season-wide marks of just over 11 shots and less than one goal per match?
Every other conference team, to be precise, came out of the season more efficient with respect to offensive efficiency. Eastern, though, could not claim they were much better. Although the Panthers concluded scoring drives with goals on a more consistent basis, the frequency at which they challenged opposing keepers was even more unremarkable than Southeast Missouri. Not much has changed a season later.
Eastern has produced at a clip of seven shots and one goal a game on average, numbers that might exaggerate their proficiency in and around the penalty area.
That statistic, of course, conflates the good with the bad. Of the five matches they have played so far, Eastern did not score any goals in two matches, chipped in two in the loss to Milwaukee and finished with three in the one game they won.
If the Panthers think they will get a brief respite on Friday, there is no doubt as to how the degree of difficulty, contingent on which Tennessee-Martin team takes the field, might multiply on the back end of the weekend slate.
Tennessee-Martin has been fighting the vagaries in their level of play, specifically when it comes to the ability, and sometimes inability, of the defense to assist All-OVC goalkeeper Erica Meyers.
While Meyers has more saves than all except one keeper in the OVC, the Skyhawks allow more goals than most teams in the conference.
The Skyhawks folded to Murray State in the conference championship, and this could all just be a blip in their defensive skillset.
All the Panthers can hope is that their offensive tendencies will begin to correct themselves.
Tom O’Connor can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]