Redhawks will be battling for OVC supremacy this weekend

Southeast Missouri State senior Esmie Gonzales, center, tries to work through the Tennessee Tech defense recently at Houck Stadium.
Tom Davis ~ Tdavis@semoball.com

Heather Nelson has a vivid memory of the last time the Southeast Missouri State women's soccer team faced off against SIU-Edwardsville at Houck Field.

It was Oct. 3 and Southeast was nursing a 1-0 second-half lead as time was running out.

Victory was within the Redhawks' grasp.

With 12 ticks left on the clock, the Cougars' Courtney Benning slipped in a goal from the left side of the box.

Overtime.

"(It was) a defining moment for our team," said Nelson, Southeast's head coach since the inception of women's soccer at Southeast in 1999.

"The momentum should have been with SIUE."

The Redhawks came back to win in double overtime, 2-1.

Today, both teams meet again at Houck.

Top-seeded Southeast (11-4-1, 8-1-1, OVC) takes on the No. 4 Cougars (8-5-4, 5-2-3, OVC) at 6:30 p.m. with the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship in the windshield.

It is a semifinal match in the Southeast-hosted tournament.

The winner will play either No. 2 Murray State or No. 6 Belmont for the title at 2 p.m. Sunday.

"This team has shown me again and again," said Nelson, "that if we get scored on first, we'll answer."

"It's always a good match (with SIUE)," Nelson said. "We share a recruiting base and the high school and club rivalries come through at the college level."

Nelson said she has a "process-oriented" philosophy in terms of which Redhawks get playing time.

"We go from week-to-week based on the last performance," Nelson said. "Sometimes we decide on the lineup at the final practice before a game."

The notion of playing based on merit is one of the team's five core values, which also include selflessness, constant improvement, mental toughness and leadership.

Nelson points to seniors Esmie Gonzales, Siena Senatore, Katie Lever, Jen Brien, Cassidi Tomsu and Jordan Nelson as young women who have persevered in adversity.

"(They) have gone through some incredible life and health experiences," Nelson said. "Their motto is -- 'We're still here.'"

Adversity struck the team most recently in its final regular-season matchup against Tennessee Tech.

Sophomore starting goalkeeper Bailey Redden received a red card late in the Oct. 28 contest.

By rule, Redden is not eligible for today's game.

Nelson has two other goalies -- redshirt sophomore Kayla Byrd and junior Abby Rollet, recently added to the roster -- and declined to say who will start against SIUE.

Freshman Hailey Block is Southeast's leading scorer, with seven goals and 16 points.

The Redhawks' coaching staff has great respect for the Cougars' Mackenzie Litzsinger, who has recorded two game-winning goals this season for the Cougars.

"(Litzsinger) is in the running for OVC offensive player of the year," Nelson said.

Southeast is undefeated at Houck this season and has not lost a game in almost six weeks.

On Sept. 29, the Redhawks were blanked 5-0 at Murray State, one of four shutouts sustained on the season.

Noting SIUE as a "strong defensive unit," Nelson was quick to tout her squad's strengths.

"(We have) excellent technical skills, very good team speed, we're fit and our (student-athletes) have soccer minds," Nelson said.

"They understand the game."

Spectators may see a field position battle or may witness attacking at both ends, Nelson said.

"Playing end-to-end is a riskier strategy," Nelson said, "but fans like it better because it's more exciting to watch."

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