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Baylor Soccer

Baylor Soccer Prepares for Big 12 Tournament, Postseason Rematch with Cincinnati

October 27, 2023
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With the NCAA soccer regular season now over, teams are either packing things up for the season or heading to conference tournaments. All-Conference teams are also being announced and the Baylor Bears are able to enjoy a bit of both with Callie Conrad making the Big 12 All-Freshman team and Michelle Lenard’s team earning the No. 8 seed in the Big 12 Tournament.

Conrad thoroughly earned her award with a two-goal and five-assist season. Those nine points were good for third on the team. Conrad also played the most minutes of any freshman on the team with 949 minutes (Hallie Augustyn leads the whole team with 1548).

“We want to see our freshmen getting recognition,” said Baylor head coach Michelle Lenard, “We've got a number of freshmen who in the next couple of years are going to start getting big swell recognition. I'm confident as we start to finish higher in the conference, they're going to notice some more of these players.”

Plenty of other Bears had great regular seasons but could not crack the All-Big 12 first or second teams. 

“I think that we have players who get overlooked, yes,” said Coach Lenard, “But we're in a tough conference. And if we'd finished two spots higher then maybe that's different.”

Some candidates that stood out this year were Tyler Isgrig (six goals, seven assists) and both Hallie and Hannah Augustyn who were defensive rocks while notching four points each.

Perhaps the Bear that could feel snubbed the most is leading goal scorer Ashley Merrill. The senior knocked in 11 goals over the course of the season including a program-record 4-minute hat trick as well as a brace in the regular season finale to ensure tournament qualification. 

“I don't really need recognition,” countered Merrill, “It's a team thing. Team effort.” She later emphasized that it’s simply what she’s supposed to do.

Merrill is a total competitor and the way she carries herself on the field shows that the goals don’t matter to her if the team doesn’t win.

Coach Lenard later verified this while offering a little insight into how pivotal Merrill can be for the team.

“It's important for us, you know, sometimes she puts the team on her back and says let's do it. But as you can see, she doesn't care about who gets the goal. She's one of the most competitive players on his team and wants to win more than anything else.”

Between Merrill, Isgrig and the rest of the team, Baylor was able to score 31 goals this year, more than double last year’s 15 and the exact number of goals that the Bears gave up last season. The defense, for its part, gave up 23 goals, with 10 of those coming in three games to three of the best offenses in the Big 12 (No. 5 Texas Tech,, No. 7 BYU, and RV Texas). A stable improvement on all fronts.

“I knew we were going to be a better team,” said Coach Lenard, “I knew that we were going to have these types of results. But it's really great for them to see the work that they put in, and then how it's paying off here at the end of the season. And I feel that we're really confident knowing that not only were we better when we started this season, but we're better now than we were two months ago.”

Ashley Merrill added, “Obviously we had a rough year last year. And I think it just shows that we've been working hard. And it would just mean more if we went further into the tournament. I think that it's nice to get to the tournament, but like, that's bare minimum.”

That last statement is very telling of the mentality of the team. Coach Lenard was cautiously optimistic heading into the season, so while not setting the expectations publicly too high she got her team to a place where they believed they were good enough to finish in the top half of the league.

As the season went on and the Bears earned good results, that belief transformed into knowledge. They are a top-half-quality team. 

“We're a good enough team,” Merrill now says of qualifying for the Big tournament, “That's not really an accomplishment. I mean, we should have been top five, top six.”

Coach Lenard added, “It's an important step. But I mean, we're still about two spots lower than we would have liked to have been in so and we could have been.”

Being two spots lower, in large part thanks to conceding a late equalizer to Cincinnati a few weeks ago, now sees the Bears set for a rematch with the Bearcats in the 8/9 matchup of the first round (rather than facing TCU in the 3/6 matchup in the second round).

So looking back at the earlier Cincinnati draw, what do the Bears think and feel about conceding two set-piece goals for a draw?

“I think we deserved to win that game,” said Merrill, “I think they think that too.”

Tyler Isgrig added, “After that game, I was really upset, especially with the ball that almost went over the line… and then the fouls that they called… and also just playing on an injury that game.”

As far as the set-piece goals go, Coach Lenard know that particularly free kicks have been an issue for her team defensively.

“Those are goals that we can do a lot more to defend better against,“ said Coach Lenard, “And we have focused on it a little bit more, maybe changed our setup just a little bit, really just tried to make sure we're dialed in and focused in those critical moments. And we've also got except conceding fouls right around the edge of the box.”

Now with improved focus and altered tactics, the Bears have a chance to clean things up, get a better result against the same team, and possibly jump-start a little postseason run.

“[We’re] grateful to have another opportunity to play Cincinnati, we felt like we let that one slip away,” said Coach Lenard.

“Nobody's scared,” said Merrill, “Nobody's fearful, but we have been practicing that so that we will take away those chances, then our defense is good enough to shut them down.”

Coach Lenard went on to say that, “It's postseason play, everybody's season is on the line when you get to this point in the season. And that's true for almost everyone unless you feel you've got a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament”

The Bears certainly don’t have an NCAA spot within their grasp already with an RPI sitting in the mid-90s. So the Big 12 Tournament is a golden opportunity.

“Now we have a clean slate,” said Ashley Merrill, “It's just an opportunity to prove people wrong.”

And specifically about the Cincinnati matchup, “I think we're gonna win the game. I know we're gonna win the game.”

Kickoff is set for 1 PM CST on Saturday and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.

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Baylor Soccer Prepares for Big 12 Tournament, Postseason Rematch with Cincinnati

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