ATHENS, Ga. --- The 2008 Georgia soccer season might not have gone totally according to plan, but head coach Patrick Baker might have learned more about his team this season than at any other time during his four-year Georgia coaching career.
From starting the season 3-8-1, to breaking school records and reaching a second straight NCAA Tournament, the Georgia Bulldogs endured many highs and lows throughout the 2008 season.
"Looking back at the fall, you feel a lot of emotions and realize that we overcame a lot to have the successful season we had," Baker said. "The journey to finishing second in the conference, playing again for the SEC championship and making the NCAA Tournament was a far different journey this year than in 2007. In both seasons, we learned a lot, but this year we realized the character of this team more than ever."
The Bulldogs were not only hampered by injuries that kept their projected preseason lineup off the field, but they also faced one of the nation's toughest schedules. In their first nine games of the 2008 season, the Bulldogs faced seven teams that finished the year in top 15 of the final ratings percentage index. Included in that mix was No. 1 North Carolina, which would eventually go on to win the national championship, No. 3 Stanford, No. 8 Florida, No. 9 Duke, No. 12 Virginia, No. 14 Southern California and No. 15 BYU.
"Even changing our system still allowed us opportunities to be successful," said Baker, whose team switched to a 4-5-1 formation during the non-conference season. "We were tied 0-0 with 20 minutes to go against Virginia, 2-2 with 15 minutes to go against Southern Cal and trailed just 1-0 with 20 minutes to go against North Carolina - we just couldn't find ways to win those games. It took a month to finally get everyone back and we decided after the Duke game to go back to our traditional 4-4-2 which seemed to help everyone."
With the return of their projected lineup in time for the start of the conference season, success did not immediately follow as the Bulldogs began league play with a 1-2-1 record, moving their overall mark to 3-8-1 and severely hindering their prospects of making the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm sure a lot of people thought we were doomed, but the players never lost faith and started one of the most remarkable runs I have ever had the joy to witness," Baker said. "There was no room for error - ties weren't going to help us and mathematically we were in danger of having a losing season."
Despite the struggles of the early part of the season, that would not deter the Bulldogs as they would enjoy a 6-1 record during the final seven games of the SEC season, finishing with seven conference wins, the second most conference victories in school history, and securing a spot in the SEC Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Georgia would establish itself as one of the most balanced teams in the conference as its defense would allow the fewest goals and shots allowed during the conference season. During a seven-game stretch from Oct. 10 to Oct. 31, the Georgia defense would earn five shutouts and allow just two goals in those seven games. In that time, Georgia would earn a weekend sweep of Vanderbilt and Kentucky at home, on the road at Mississippi State and Ole Miss, a win at Alabama and Georgia's first ever road win at Tennessee.
"The win over Arkansas in early October was key because it stopped a streak of games without winning a game and gave everyone some belief," Baker said. "A week later, we played tremendously well against Vanderbilt and Kentucky and that changed everyone's outlook for the stretch run of our schedule. We began to focus more on ourselves and in turn the results started to build up. Going on the road and sweeping the Mississippi schools, beating an upstart Alabama team and winning for the first time in Knoxville to end the regular season was impressive. During that time, our line-up started to materialize and we found a rotation that seemed to work for us."
In that stretch, two Georgia players earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors in back-to-back weeks. On Oct. 14, senior defender Megan Tomlinson earned Georgia's first weekly conference award of the season and junior goalkeeper Michelle Betos would win it the following week after posting shutout wins at Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Betos was brilliant in net for Georgia during the conference season, earning a 0.61 goals against average during the conference season, tops among goalies appearing in all 11 games during the conference season.
Meanwhile, the offense clicked as the season went on. Junior forward Carrie Patterson broke the all-time points record in an Oct. 26 game at Alabama with a goal and an assist in Georgia's 2-0 win over the Crimson Tide. And in Georgia's final game of the regular season, Patterson would net two goals to join Mandy Aiken for the all-time lead in goals scored in Georgia history with 33. Her effort would earn her the final SEC Offensive Player of the Week award of the season.
Freshman Ashley Miller emerged as complement to Patterson on the front line as she accounted for five goals during the season, the second-most on the team. Her performances against Arkansas, LSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky were impressive, scoring the game-winners against Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Nine other players scored goals for the Bulldogs this season, including game winners from Lauren Glancy, Jamie Pollock and Tomlinson during conference play.
In ending the regular season with a 9-9-1 record, it was a must that Georgia advance to at least the second round of the SEC Tournament to be eligible for selection into the NCAA Tournament. In convincing fashion, the Bulldogs proved they belonged in the field of 64 with their performances in the first two rounds of the SEC Tournament.
"Besides the national semifinal in 2003 against Connecticut, I was never more nervous as a coach than before the SEC quarterfinal game against South Carolina. We had overcome so much, come so far and now this game would likely determine if we went to the NCAA Tournament or not. We didn't mention that to the players, but for our team I was so hopeful we could find a way to win that game and we did. The young ladies played hard and defended really well, plus Michelle Betos was her usual stellar self in goal. Scoring early helped and thank goodness we had scored two goals in the first half because that was barely enough on that particular night."
In their first round game against South Carolina, the Bulldogs scored two goals in the first 25 minutes to seize control en route to a 2-1 win against the Gamecocks. In the semifinal, Georgia would face then No. 7 Florida, the only team the Bulldogs lost to on the road during conference play in the last two years. Georgia would get on the board first, thanks to an own goal by the Florida defense. The score would remain 1-0 in favor of Georgia until the second half, when Georgia would score two goals seven minutes apart to clinch the 3-0 victory. The win over the No. 7 Gators was the highest ranked opponent any Georgia squad had ever defeated. In the title game, the Bulldogs would drop a 1-0 contest against Tennessee and were forced to wait to hear their name called during the NCAA Tournament selection show the following night.
Ultimately, Georgia would hear its name called and was assured of its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, just the second time that has happened in school history. However, the Bulldogs would fall victim to the very play that helped them get to the NCAA Tournament in their opening round game against James Madison. The Dukes would get the only goal of the game off a Georgia own goal in the early part of the second half in their 1-0 victory over the Bulldogs.
Although the early tournament exit wasn't the way Georgia had imagined its 2008 season ending, the obstacles that were overcome just to get to the NCAA Tournament made reaching the postseason a remarkable achievement. Without so many players performing at an all-conference level, it might have been a struggle for Georgia to even come close to postseason contention.
Senior Megan Tomlinson, maybe Georgia's most versatile threat, was named Third-Team All-Region by the NSCAA after being named a First Team All-SEC selection and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year - the first time any Georgia player has ever earned that award. Her consistency in the back, along with her aggressive attacking presence toward the net made her one of the league's most talented all-around players. Joining Tomlinson on the league's postseason teams were Patterson (1st Team), Bailey Powell (2nd Team and Freshman) and Miller (Freshman).
In addition to their on field success, the Bulldogs achieved classroom excellence and was awarded the NSCAA Team Academic Award for the 2007-08 school year. Also, Powell and freshman Meghan Gilmore were named NSCAA/adidas High School All-Americans for the 2008 spring and fall high school seasons.
On the surface, an 11-11-1 season record might have been considered a disappointment for some teams. Even though it's not the record the Georgia Bulldogs wanted to end the 2008 season, in making their second straight SEC Tournament championship game and second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs proved that they would be a contender in the SEC and around the nation for years to come.
"Looking back at the 2008 season, there were a number of ups and downs for our team," Baker said. "But when it mattered the most, they played very good soccer and found ways to be successful. This season will be remembered for numerous things, but one of the most obvious visuals is that this was a special group of young ladies that played a tremendous schedule and were better players, teammates and people because of the competition."