Clayton State junior Jahmela Williams, left, talks with coach Gareth O’Sullivan during a recent practice as the No. 11 Lakers prepared for today’s NCAA Div. II Southeast Regional match against Columbus State. (Special Photo)
MORROW — Clayton State’s Peach Belt Conference tournament championship earned the Lakers a spot in the NCAA Div. II Tournament.
As the No. 5 seed in the Southeast Regional, the Lakers will take on conference foe Columbus State today at 1 p.m. in North Carolina. It will be the second meeting of the season between two teams with the Lakers winning 3-0 at home in an upset. At the time, Columbus State was ranked No. 7 in the country.
“We are excited about the opportunity to advance to the NCAA,” Clayton State coach Gareth O’Sullivan said. “We know it’s going to be some tough competition, but if we play well, we have an opportunity to advance.”
The winner of today’s match will take on host Wingate on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Wingate, out of the South Atlantic Conference, is the region’s top seed and received a bye in the first round. The Bulldogs are 15-2-3 on the season.
The appearance in the NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer National Championships will be the program’s third appearance at nationals. The team also advanced in 2004 and 2005, falling each year in the first round of the event to Carson-Newman. The Lakers will enter Friday’s match with a 16-match unbeaten streak.
“We have been very resilient in our winning streak,” O’Sullivan said. “We have been behind a lot in those matches, but we haven’t quit or given up. We have had that never say die attitude, and that is a good trait to have on your side.”
Earlier this week, Clayton State moved up in the latest rankings.
The Lakers vaulted up 11 spots in the latest NSCAA/Continental Tire NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer poll, moving up to 11th in the nation. The ranking for Clayton State is the highest national ranking in the history of the women’s soccer program. Clayton State is the highest ranked team from the Peach Belt or the Southeast Region.
Clayton State (12-3-6) captured the PBC Tournament Championship in thrilling fashion Sunday, defeating Georgia College 4-2 on penalty kicks.
“We are excited to travel to Wingate this weekend,” O’Sullivan said. “We wanted to avoid a PBC team, but our game against Columbus State should be a cracker.”
The other side of the six-team Southeast Regional bracket will feature No. 2 Lenoir-Rhyne (14-4-1), No. 3 Belmont Abbey (14-3-3) and No. 6 Pfeiffer (13-6-1).
Lenior-Rhyne will host the other bracket of the Southeast Regional bracket and play the winner of Belmont Abbey and Pfeiffer. The first and second round matches at Lenoir-Rhyne are also on today and Sunday.
“To be honest, our side of the bracket is the toughest,” O’Sullivan said. “We would have rather played someone else besides Columbus State, and I’m sure they feel the same way about us. It is tough to beat a team twice in a season. Right now, it is really about performance.”
Columbus State lost 2-1 to Georgia College in the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference tournament in Evans. Prior to that, the Cougars had won four straight matches, including three shutouts. The Cougars are 5-1 in road matches but 0-3 in matches at a neutral site.