Dogs Have Breakthrough Season
Georgia made tremendous strides last season toward establishing itself as one of the premier women's soccer programs in the country as the Bulldogs reached the 15-win plateau, finished at 15-6-1 and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Bill Barker originally planned on his team's progression to take a season longer, setting a four-year time table for the Bulldogs to make the NCAAs. Barker and the Bulldogs were somewhat in awe as they watched the 32-team field being announced and saw their name among the elite in the nation.
It was not an easy journey through the season, but the Bulldogs persevered through a difficult schedule that pitted them against ranked teams eight times. Georgia played solid in each match, holding a 3-4-1 mark in those contests.
The Bulldogs started the season with a bang as they won an overtime thriller at Central Florida, thanks to Allison Thornbury's "Golden Goal" in the 110th minute of action. Georgia went on to win its first six matches and eight of its first nine including a 2-1 win at Vanderbilt for the Bulldogs' first win against the Commodores. The team, however, struggled through a mid-season stretch that saw Georgia go 2-3-1 over its next six matches. The Bulldogs played well despite the disappointing record through those contests, tying No. 12 Wake Forest and dropping a close 2-1 decision at No. 12 Clemson.
A late-season surge including a five-game winning streak to end the regular season propelled Georgia into the SEC Tournament. Georgia shut-out its final two opponents, No. 25 Butler and No. 16 Massachusetts and were riding high entering Gainesville. The Bulldogs earned the top Wild Card spot for the eight-team tournament and faced SEC West Champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide finished their SEC slate 7-1 with their only loss coming to the Bulldogs early in the season. Alabama took a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead with under 30 minutes to play, but Georgia got a goal by Stephanie Yarem in the 85th minute and Kristy Bongiovanni struck for two goals in the final three minutes to cap an unbelievable comeback. Barker would later call that match the one that saved the Bulldogs' season.
Georgia then faced host Florida in the semifinals and was left with only 10 players on the field after Yarem was ejected with a red card for a hard tackle. The Bulldogs continued to play well despite the Gators' man-advantage but succumbed to the eventual tournament champion 3-1.
As the Bulldogs watched anxiously for their first NCAA invitation, they were equally excited to learn that they had not only qualified for the tournament, but they would face familiar foe Clemson in the opening round. Georgia lost to the Tigers 2-1 during the regular season but liked its chances for an upset.
The Bulldogs out-played the No. 14 Tigers the entire first half, but Georgia could not overcome a missed penalty kick and two other shots that hit the post as Clemson scored in the 80th minute for the game's only goal. Georgia out-shot Clemson 17-15 but only managed three shots in the second half.
"We played one of the best games we played all year," a disappointed Barker said after the match. "We deserved to win, but sometimes the best team on a certain day doesn't always win."
Despite the heart-wrenching defeat, the Bulldogs took many positives from their first tournament experience. Georgia played without its leading scorer as Yarem still suffered the effects of the only red card given to a Georgia player. The team's career assists leader, Suzannah Weathersbee, missed the final nine games due to an injury sustained in the first Clemson contest, leaving the Bulldog attack in unfamiliar territory.
Georgia also had its first All-American in 1997 as Stephanie Yarem garnered First Team NSCAA honors. She was also named First Team All-Southeast and All-SEC after leading the nation in match-winning goals (8) and establishing Georgia single season and career records for points and goals. Midfielder Allison Thornbury was a pleasant surprise in 1997 as she totaled career highs in points (22), goals (7) and assists (8). Forwards Mandy Aiken and Bentley Bickerstaff had solid seasons again as they continue to put up stellar offensive numbers.
The Bulldogs received outstanding play from three freshmen as defender Stefanie Bertcher, midfielder Kristy Bongiovanni and goalkeeper Nicole Williams started each contest. Bongiovanni was named a Third Team Freshman All-American by Soccer Buzz and Williams earned Third Team NSCAA All-Southeast honors. Bertcher was solid on defense playing every minute of each match on the year.
Georgia also received its first ever ranking by the NSCAA during the season and was ranked as high as No. 19 in some polls, bringing substantial credibility to the still young program.
"You have to think the 1997 season puts us in good shape heading into next year," Barker said. "But because we made the tournament this year doesn't mean we'll be back next season. We now have a bull's-eye on our back because we're a top-20 team."