ROCK HILL, S.C. –Jessica Cravero scored a pair of goals while Itzel Ballesteros added a goal and two assists to lead the second-seeded Lady Railsplitters to the South Atlantic Conference tournament crown with a 3-1 triumph over top-seeded and No. 16 Carson-Newman on Sunday afternoon at Manchester Meadows.
In the biggest win for the Lincoln Memorial women's soccer program in over a decade, the Lady Railsplitters (14-4) thwarted Carson-Newman's (14-4) bid for its fourth consecutive SAC tournament championship by winning its first conference title since 2007.
Lincoln Memorial becomes the first team in conference history to beat the Eagles in the SAC title game, dropping Carson-Newman to 7-1 all-time in the conference championship match. In addition to all that, the Lady Railsplitters snapped C-N's eight-match winning streak and improved to 9-1 over their last 10 matches.
The win also means that the Lady Railsplitters will end another long drought by earning the SAC's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. It will be Lincoln Memorial's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.
It's been over a decade in the waiting.— LMU Railsplitters (@LMURailsplitter) November 4, 2018
For the first time since 2007, @lmuwsoc1 has won the South Atlantic Conference tournament title. And now the Lady Railsplitters will head to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years https://t.co/7wk26qGfpN pic.twitter.com/NoUprbrFhr
Carson-Newman outshot Lincoln Memorial 16-7, including a 12-5 edge in the first half, but the Lady Railsplitters took advantage of their limited opportunities while keeping the SAC's top scoring offense mostly in check. Carson-Newman, which entered the match averaging 2.88 goals per game, was limited to one goal or less for only the fifth time in 18 appearances this season.
Lincoln Memorial has been led offensively all season by All-SAC first team forwards Cravero and Ballesteros, and that duo again led the way in Sunday's landmark victory.
The Eagles had all the chances early and were outshooting the Lady Railsplitters 8-1 through the first 20 minutes, but a long pass from Ballesteros launched Cravero into open space in the 22nd minute. With both composure and touch, Cravero beat C-N keeper Jackie Burns to her right to give the Lady Railsplitters the 1-0 lead.
Ballesteros then scored a goal of her own in the 29th minute, when she applied some pressure to Burns up top, intercepted an ill-advised pass and blasted it into the open net to make it a two-goal lead for the Lady Railsplitters.
The Eagles got a goal back and cut the Lady Railsplitters' lead to 2-1 in the 32nd minute on a goal by Holly Talbut-Smith that was assisted by SAC Offensive Player of the Year Magda Mosengo.
Lincoln Memorial absorbed further pressure after that goal to take a 2-1 lead into the locker room after a wild first half of play.
There wasn't much offense or many chances to speak of for either team in the second half, as C-N managed a 4-2 advantage in shot attempts.
But again, the Lady Railsplitters took advantage when the opportunity presented itself, as Cravero iced the match in the 81st minute when she received a pass that was flipped into the box by Ballesteros. Cravero then put a left-footed strike past the diving Burns to give Lincoln Memorial a 3-1 lead it would not relinquish.
Carson-Newman came closest to finding the net again earlier in the second half when the Lady Railsplitters nearly scored an own goal on a ball that was played into the middle of the box. However, Ann-Marie O'Connell snagged the ball to avert disaster and keep LMU in the lead.
Aside from that, the Eagles mustered just one shot on goal in the entire second half.
O'Connell finished with three saves to earn her 14th win of the season.
The win continues one of the most stunning turnarounds in recent memory, as the Lady Railsplitters won the SAC title just two seasons removed from a 3-10-2 effort in 2016.
Cravero was selected as the SAC Championship Most Outstanding Player following the match, while Ballesteros, Rachel Taylor, and Daisy Drake were also named to the All-Tournament team.
- The Lady Railsplitters captured their first-ever outright win in the SAC tournament title game. In 2007, Lincoln Memorial played Catawba to a 0-0 draw before securing its only other SAC title in a penalty-kick shootout.
- Lincoln Memorial is the first team to score multiple goals against Carson-Newman since Tusculum accomplished that feat in a 2-1 win on October 3.
- Ballesteros scored in all three SAC tournament matches and finished with nine points total. She pushed her season point total to 33 with 11 goals and a SAC-best 11 assists. Cravero ended the tournament with three goals and now has 17 this season.
The Lady Railsplitters will learn their opponent and the site of the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional on Monday when the NCAA tournament selections are announced.