Opportunities for Improvement
The 1996 Georgia soccer season was full of them. Chances to face top teams, play in the postseason and make history all over again. Some of the chances were taken advantage of, and others, well ... others fell by the wayside. But in the end, a vast improvement was made in the second season as UGA posted a 14-7 record, 6-2 in the league-an improvement that will push the program to the next level.
"There are two schools of thinking. In one, a coach can schedule 18 or 19 games with the intention of going 18-1 or 19-0; or, a coach can put together a schedule consisting of very good teams and run the risk of having an average record," head coach Bill Barker explained. "Some people say you can't recruit with an average record, but I want the type of players who want to play competitive schools, and I have those players now. I put them under the gun, at their request, and they not only survived, but improved.
"We learned a lot about our team. We made a huge jump from our first year to our second year, and I believe we are ahead of where I had planned us to be in our second season. The experiences that we had this year are only going to give us another boost for 1997; if we make the same jump to the next level, we'll definitely be in good shape."
The Dogs opened up their season much like they did last year, defeating Georgia State and Georgia Southern. Georgia then took its 2-0 start on the road to face No. 8 Massachusetts and No. 5 Connecticut in the UMass Classic, the first of seven Top 25 teams it would face. "When Coach Barker came to us and told us that he thought we were ready to play some top schools this year, it gave us confidence in ourselves," sophomore Allison Thornbury said."We all wanted it because we realized that it was a way to bring a name to us, whether we won or lost."
The tournament handed Georgia its first two losses of the season, 1-0 to UMass and 2-0 to UConn, but Barker felt the team had their own small victories in the process. "The team came in apprehensive, thinking 'Wow, these are two of the top teams in the country!' and they played very tentatively," Barker recalled. "However, they improved each half, and that's a mark of a team that wants to win. They started coming together in the second half of the UMass game, played better in the first half against UConn. By the second half of the second game, a second-year team was scaring the No. 5 team in the country."
Georgia continued to improve on the road. In their first conference game, the Dogs defeated Arkansas 4-2 in overtime, thanks to goals by Mandy Aiken and Bentley Bickerstaff. Georgia came out with all guns blazing against LSU. The Bulldog cause got a boost early in the game, courtesy of Aiken's second goal of the season. Aiken was assisted by Suzannah Weathersbee, who also netted the game-winning goal off a penalty kick. After blanking UNC-Charlotte 2-0 in Charlotte, the Bulldogs had five days to prepare for Florida. The Dogs and Gators held each other to a standstill in 1995, and both teams were eager to break the 0-0 tie. A record crowd of 2,259 watched the Gators down the Dogs 1-0, courtesy of a Danielle Fotopoulos header in the 78th minute. With Georgia getting back on track against South Carolina, freshman Shelia Gartman scored her first goal of 1996 in overtime. Goalie Mindy Hyde posted 14 saves in front of a crowd of 1,112.
Looking for out-of-conference relief, Georgia faced Davidson and defeated them for the second straight year, with Weathersbee scoring the game-winning goal. The squad shattered all sorts of records in its 11-0 explosion versus Jacksonville as eight different Dogs scored.
Georgia's next target was Clemson, yet another chance to beat a nationally-rated team. And again, the Dogs went down early after Georgia native Jen Crawford scored in the 30th minute and again six minutes later to give the Tigers a 2-0 win. Going on the road for redemption versus Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Dogs delivered their first victory over a ranked opponent by downing No. 21 Kentucky in overtime, 2-1. Looking for another building block, the Bulldogs were victimized by No. 22 Vanderbilt 4-1.
With their final five games to be played in Athens, the Dogs hoped for five victories and to push the overall home attendance mark over 11,000. One of two wishes came true. The Dogs did top the 11,000 mark, thanks to three crowds over 800. It looked as if the Dogs would get their second wish as well, with wins over Furman, Tennessee, Mississippi and Mercer. The two conference wins also secured Georgia the second seed in the SEC Tournament, its first tourney trip ever. However, No. 8 Maryland burst the Bulldogs' bubble, in more ways than one. The Terrapins scored first in the 37th minute, and again 11 minutes later. Coming back from halftime, though, the Dogs were ferocious. Bickerstaff scored just five minutes into the second half to cut the lead to one. Just as Georgia was regaining its momentum, the referee called back an Aiken goal in the 60th minute that would have tied the game. With the Dogs' desire depleted, Maryland scored twice more to win the game 4-1.
Georgia's loss marked its sixth setback against a ranked team and lessened the Dogs' hopes of appearing in the NCAA Tournament, but there was one more hope ... winning the SEC Tournament.
Barker's Bulldogs arrived in Lexington with several things going for them. First of all, Georgia's only win over a nationally-ranked team was against Kentucky. Secondly, Suzannah Weathersbee was named first team All-SEC, while Stephanie Yarem was named to the second team - program firsts.
"I was very surprised," said Weathersbee, who left after the 1995 season but decided to return for 1996. "I wanted to come back, wanted to be out there and wanted to win. It's a honor to be named to the team."
Georgia looked worthy of a second seed against Alabama in the first round, as the Dogs battled the Tide and won 3-2. Mandy Aiken made both school and tournament history by scoring three goals, including the decisive tally prior to the game going into overtime. In the second round, Arkansas took the field looking to avenge its 4-2 setback. Emotion prevailed throughout as the Lady Razorbacks raced to a 3-0 advantage before Bickerstaff scored Georgia's only goal in the 89th minute. The loss was especially disappointing to the Dogs, who were looking forward to facing Florida in the championship game. Of little consolation, Aiken was named to the All-Tournament Team, a testament to her hat trick.
"Mandy's last goal was a textbook goal and will probably go down as one of the best goals we scored this season," Barker said. "She has been very valuable to our program and proved that in several of our conference wins." The Dogs were still hoping to squeeze into the NCAA Tournament and watched the televised selection process as a team. Georgia was denied a berth, but each member of the squad still views the season as a success.
"I had always hoped to get invited to the NCAAs," sole senior Hyde said. "It was one of the reasons I chose to come to Georgia. The season was still a success, though; we all learned so much about each other."
Weathersbee said the eam was always "one win away" from the tournament, and Barker agreed.
"There were certainly teams that we were capable of picking off, and we just didn't execute. We had consistent goalkeeping this year; our defense saw and learned about adjustment; and our attacking scheme proved that we could play within a few goals of any team in the country. The season was a definite success."