UM soccer hosts Mississippi State tonight

Ole Miss, the SEC Western Division champion, hosts MSU tonight with an opportunity to win the overall SEC title.

The Ole Miss women's soccer team has already wrapped up a solo title as Southeastern Conference Western Division champions. Tonight against Mississippi State, they hope to become overall SEC champs as well.

Some things have to happen. First, they have to beat the Bulldogs. Second, Georgia, which hosts Tennessee, has to beat the Vols. If Georgia and Tennessee tie and Ole Miss beats State, the Rebs and Vols are SEC co-champs.

So no doubt all those in red and blue are hoping for a win over MSU in tonight's 7 p.m. contest in Oxford, and for Georgia to get past Tennessee in Athens.

An overall SEC crown for the UM women's soccer program would be a first. Head Coach Steve Holeman says his team knows what's at stake.

"We have to focus on what we can control, and that's how we play against Mississippi State," said Holeman, whose program was SEC West champs in 1999 and again in 2000. "I am sure Mississippi State will be motivated. It would be huge for them to come in and beat us on our home field."

The Bulldogs have struggled this season and enter tonight's contest 3-11-3 on the season and 2-8 in SEC play. The Rebels are 14-3-1 overall and 8-1-1 in SEC action.

Also pending tonight's outcomes in both Oxford and Athens will be seeding for next weekend's SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala. The Rebels will be either the first or second seed depending on the way things turn out tonight.

In many ways it's been the best year ever for the Ole Miss soccer program, now in its 11th season. Holeman is the only head coach the program has ever had.

Among the most impressive aspects of the 2005 edition of Rebel soccer has been the defense. Ole Miss has set an SEC record for shutouts with eight in league play, shattering the old mark of six.

Eight shutouts in soccer for Ole Miss this season is akin to what the 1959 Ole Miss football team did when it shut out eight of 11 opponents and only allowed the other three foes seven points each on its way to both SEC and national titles.

"We've only given up two goals all season in SEC play," said Holeman, as South Carolina scored one in a 3-1 loss to UM in Oxford, and Tennessee beat the Rebels 1-0 in Knoxville. "Defensively we've just been outstanding all season."

There have been some dramatic victories for the Rebels, but that's what it takes to win championships. They scored with 13 seconds left in the second overtime to beat Auburn 1-0 at home. They scored all three of their goals in the final nine minutes of the game to beat South Carolina 3-1 at home. They scored in the last two minutes to beat Florida 1-0 at home.

They opened the SEC season at Georgia with a 1-0 victory, scoring the lone goal in the last three minutes of the contest. Besides the win over South Carolina, the only blowout, so to speak, was a 3-0 win over Alabama at home.

Starting with the game at Georgia, the Rebels played their first four SEC games on the road and came home 3-1. Holeman said the Rebels felt they were in good shape to make a run after that.

"Our motto this year is Find a Way," he said. "We saw that early from this team. I knew after we beat Georgia in that first SEC game that we'd beaten a quality team on the road. There is no question we have the most depth we've ever had, and that this is the hardest working group we've had. Those were strengths of this team."

What he didn't know was how the youth of the team would handle things. There is only one senior, Hillary Beckman, and her playing time is limited. There are four freshmen, five sophomores, and two juniors in the lineup. Freshman Jennifer Hance has scored four game-winning goals herself.

That all bodes well for the future of the program.

"The mindset of the team this year has been that they simply refused to lose," Holeman said. "They always seemed to find a way, and hopefully that will continue."

That's tonight against MSU and also in next week's SEC tourney. Holeman believes the Rebels have already done enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but he isn't completely comfortable saying that. In 1999 and 2000 when the Rebels won the SEC West, they did not make the NCAA field. In 2002 and 2003 when they did not win the SEC West, they made the NCAA field.

"We have 14 wins (going into the MSU game tonight), and we have several quality wins," he said. "Our RPI is currently 25th in the country, and they take 64 teams. So at this point I have to feel good. But we need to continue to win games to make sure."

Holeman knows his club feels the same way.

"Everyone associated with the program is hungry for more," he said. "We've won the West, and we want to win the overall. We're ready to go out and do what we can to get that done. We'll bring our best against Mississippi State."

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