BEAUMONT, Texas – Playing in front of their biggest home crowd ever, the Lamar University Cardinals came up with their biggest win ever, a 4-1 drubbing of the archrival McNeese Cowgirls to claim the Southland Conference regular-season championship for the first time in the 11-year history of the LU women’s soccer program.
“What an amazing night,” LU coach Steve Holeman said. “We came out and played an amazing game. These girls worked hard all season, and it really paid off tonight.”
The Cardinals (15-3-1 overall, 10-1-0 Southland) got on the board quickly, taking a 1-0 lead while many of the 695 in attendance were attempting to find a place to sit.
M.J. Eckart, one of seven LU seniors honored in pregame Senior Night ceremonies, scored on a penalty kick just 6:11 into the game after LU forward Lucy Ashworth was pulled down in the penalty area. It was the third penalty-kick goal in as many attempts for Eckart this season, and her fifth goal overall.
“It feels unbelievable to score a goal on Senior Night,” Eckart said. “It feels even better to know that we are champions.”
Both teams had some glittering scoring opportunities for the remainder of the first half, but LU goalkeeper Lauren Lovejoy and McNeese netminder Emma Roccaforte each made three saves in the opening frame as LU carried a 1-0 lead into intermission.
The Cardinals started the second half even hotter than they started the initial period, netting two goals in the first 4:29 to take a 3-0 lead.
Juliana Ocampo scored just 65 seconds into the second half, tallying an unassisted goal after beating Roccaforte from a scramble in front of the cage for her fourth goal of the season. Kelso Peskin made it 3-0 with her team-leading eighth goal just 3:24 after Ocampo’s goal. Laura Parra started the play with a nice pass to Madison Ledet, who fed it to Peskin, who blasted one past Roccaforte.
The Cardinals made it 4-0 with 18:54 remaining in regulation as another senior got onto the scoring chart on Senior Day. Defender Tori Alaniz took a pass from Lucy Ashworth and slid one past Roccaforte for her first goal of the season.
The Cowgirls (12-5-1, 8-3-0), who needed a win to become co-champs with the Cardinals, broke Lovejoy’s shutout bid with 11:26 remaining as McNeese forward Savannah LaRicci scored just inside the far post for her conference-leading 12th goal of the season.
That goal did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the LU faithful, who counted down the final seconds before joining the Cardinals on the field for an impromptu championship celebration as the Cardinals became the first soccer team in Southland history to go from worst to first in one season.
“I’ve dreamed of this even before I played my first college game,” Lovejoy said. “To win a championship is incredible. I can’t think of a better group of people to do it with. We went through so much these past few years, but it’s all worth it.”
Lovejoy finished with four saves, while Roccaforte, who had allowed just six goals in conference play all season before Friday, made three saves. LU’s four goals were the most the Cardinals scored in a conference game this season.
“To score four goals in any game is tremendous,” Holeman said. “To do it against the stingiest defensive team in the league is special.”
The Cardinals will make their first appearance in the conference tournament since 2012 when they meet the host Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders, the No. 8 seed, at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Jack Dugan Stadium in Corpus Christi.
“We’ll take Saturday off, but we’ll get right back to work on Sunday,” Holeman said. “This will be an incredible experience. None of these girls have ever been to the conference tournament, but now they are going as the top seed. It means everyone will be out for us, but we have risen to challenges all season.”