For the second straight season, Mercer sits one win away from the top of the A-Sun mountain, as a semifinal win over Jacksonville on Thursday gave the Orange and Black a spot in the Saturday’s Atlantic Sun Championship Final in Kennesaw, Ga.
The Bears will meet Belmont, who knocked off second-seeded Kennesaw State on penalty kicks, to decide the fate of the Atlantic Sun tournament title and the conference’s automatic NCAA berth.
“We know that Belmont is a very talented team,” Mercer head coach Grant Serafy said. “They are a hard-working, well-coached team with a lot of effective players, so we know its going to be a very difficult challenge. But any true competitor always look forward to playing in a championship final, and we are fortunate enough to be in that position now,”
If the two teams’ earlier encounter this season is any indication, Saturday’s championship match should be a tense and hard-fought encounter. Mercer needed a dramatic late winner from senior Meghan Castaldo on that occasion; the creative midfielder catching Bruins goalkeeper Sari Lin off her line in the 81st minute with a precise chip from 25 yards out.
Mercer earned their spot in the final with a comprehensive 2-0 win over Jacksonville in the semifinal on Thursday, redeeming a home loss to the Dolphins earlier this season. A-Sun Freshman of the Year Olivia Tucker scored both goals for the Bears, heading home a Meghan Castaldo corner kick in the 20th minute before bundling home the rebound from a Katheryn Hurst shot on the half-hour mark.
Tucker’s double raises her season tally to a team-best 10 goals in a fantastic freshman campaign, and furthers her reputation as a scorer of important goals for Mercer.
Sophomore winger Lauren Johnson looked sharp for the Orange and Black as well, harassing the Jacksonville defense with her pace, and only a fantastic diving save and a goal-line clearance prevented the St. Peters, Mo. native from getting on the scoresheet as well.
More importantly, however, Mercer’s high pressure defense held Jacksonville to no shots on goal for the contest, and aside from a Katie Orr header which rattled the crossbar, restricted the Dolphins to very little in terms of genuine scoring opportunities.
Belmont, meanwhile, secured their passage into the final via an offensive slugfest with hosts Kennesaw State. Behind 2-1 at the break, the Bruins scored two second-half goals in a 15-minute span through Erica Carter and Marcela Sanchez to seize control of the contest.
The favored Owls would equalize late on to knot the match at 3-3, eventually taking the match to penalty kicks. But Bruins’ keeper Lin kept out two KSU spot kicks before the Jessica Rix drilled home the decisive penalty to lift Belmont into the championship match.
The Bruins also knocked off Stetson in the tournament’s first round, meaning that they come into the A-Sun Final riding a five-match winning streak.
Belmont’s Annie Musacchio leads the team with eight goals and 18 points: a solid season that resulted in All A-Sun First Team honors for the junior. All told, a program-record four Belmont players landed all-conference honors, with Lin, Jessica Rix and Jamie Loftis all receiving spots on the second-team.
Mercer and Belmont meet for the Atlantic Sun Championship at the Kennesaw State Soccer Complex on Saturday, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. The match can be seen live via A-Sun TV at www.atlanticsun.org.
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