Despite a tie in the final regular season game against arch-rival Alabama Friday night in front of a packed house at the AU Soccer Complex, Richter said this has been an unbelievable season for her squad. Following on the heels of a NCAA Tournament berth last fall, the 2002 season has been one of strong play for the Tigers throughout the fall. Currently riding an eight-game unbeaten streak since losing the conference opener at Tennessee, Auburn enters this week's SEC Tournament in Oxford, Miss., a confident team.
"It has started to sink in," Richter said. "With the tie against Alabama it was a little bittersweet, but once they announced over the PA that we had won the SEC Championship I think we all got excited. When marketing brought down the T-Shirts it was really neat. It was amazing that it happened in just four years."
Auburn faces SEC Western Division foe LSU in the opening round of the tournament as the top seed in the eight-team field. LSU is a team the Tigers defeated 3-2 earlier in the season in Baton Rouge. With the match scheduled for Thursday at 11:30 a.m., Richter said her team is focusing on the task at hand, but a NCAA bid is always in the back of your mind.
"Our major focus obviously right now is LSU and trying to advance in the SEC Tournament," Richter said. "We certainly think the NCAA Tournament is in our future but it's never guaranteed. We told the team this week, 'It's never guaranteed unless you win that tournament championship,' and that's our focus right now. We want to be in a good position for the NCAA Tournament."
Megan Rivera is a key performer for the Tigers.
One of the major reasons for the strong showings each of the last two seasons is a strong sophomore class led by goalkeeper Megan Rivera and forward Sarah Steinmann. Already the single-season (eight) and career leader (13) for shutouts and giving up an average of just .76 goals per game this season, Rivera has quickly become the most dominant player in the SEC. Steinmann said she is crucial to Auburn's success and makes the team fearless on defense when she's in the net.
"We have just the most amazing confidence in her," Steinmann said. "She is just the most incredible keeper. She works very hard and makes saves that you wouldn't imagine she could make and she just pulls it through. We have a tremendous amount of confidence in her with her strength and ability."
Steinmann is Auburn's most explosive offensive player. Leading the team in scoring with six goals and nine assists, she is explosive and can outrun defenders to the net or take them off the dribble. A confident player who puts pressure on the opposition, Steinmann said that the Tigers are looking forward to continuing this unbeaten run into the postseason.
"I think we know what we need to do when we get to the tournament," Steinmann said. "It's going to be tough, it's not going to be a cakewalk. The SEC is very competitive this year as seen by many upsets. Anything can happen so we're definitely going to have to bring our 'A' game."
Following a solid opening to her career at her alma mater Central Florida, Richter made the move to Auburn in 1999. That first season was one of growing pains for the program as the Tigers finished just 6-13 overall. In 2000 the seeds began to grow as the Tigers improved to 13-7 overall, but it wasn't until last season that things really fell into place. Giving much of the credit to assistant head coach Matthew Mott for recruiting some outstanding players, Richter said last season's postseason run laid the groundwork for the SEC title in 2002.
"That played a ton into this season," Richter said. "The confidence and the experience. We were very young, the five sophomores all started throughout last year and we got a lot of experience last year even from our youngsters. Playing in some SEC games, winning some big games, and making it to the conference championship game and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. All those things really helped us from an experience factor."
Pulling the double of winning both the regular season and tournament titles is now firmly on Auburn's agenda now. Despite the possibility of having to face perennial power Florida in the second round, Rivera said they are concentrating on winning the first game before getting ahead of themselves.
That's one of our goals," Rivera said. "We just have to take it one game at a time. Our first game is against LSU so that's the only game we're concentrating on right now."