OXFORD – Having quietly become a spring story line, Ole Miss soccer is in the NCAA's Sweet 16.
If the Rebels have flown under the radar, it may be due in part to the fact that their sport typically isn’t played in the spring.
However, the COVID-19 plan laid out by the NCAA called for a split season, and Ole Miss players say the benefitted from the reboot in late February.
Now they’ve won nine-straight matches as they take on No. 8 Duke in an NCAA Tournament third-round match Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Cary, North Carolina, where the remainder of the tournament will take place. The nine-match streak is "unofficial" since a 2-0 victory at Little Rock on April 15 was considered an exhibition. Also, the NCAA recognizes a tie for those matches decided on penalty kicks.
In any language one thing is clear for Ole Miss soccer:
“Our team is playing at a really high level,” said Ole Miss coach Matthew Mott who has the Rebels in the tournament for the third time in five seasons, the first Sweet 16 bid since 2015.
The Rebels went 4-4 in fall play before falling 2-1 in overtime against LSU on Nov. 15 in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Mott cites a 3-1 win over No. 23 Memphis as the beginning of a turnaround. That was the Rebels’ second spring game, days after a 1-0 win over Samford.
Players welcomed the time between seasons.
“It was unlike anything that college soccer has seen before. For us it turned out really well. Christmas break gave us a chance to reevaluate and get out head spaces back,” junior goalkeeper Ashely Orkus said. “It was a time to reevaluate where you stand with soccer. Do you want it enough to go out and run when you don’t want to, to train when it’s cold? It was us being able to reboot that helped us a lot.”
The players weren’t the only ones to reboot during the break.
Mott and his staff considered the fall season and made strategic tweaks to go with a more aggressive approach.
“We became a little more direct. We didn’t want to pass the ball as much in the back. We wanted to get the ball forward to our playmakers as quick as we could,” Mott said.
The Rebels (10-5-2) reach the Sweet 16 after advancing past Bowling Green and No. 14 USC on penalty kicks.
Orkus shined in the clutch and now has 11 saves in the tournament, eight of them against USC which had 11 shots on goal to the Rebels’ four.
“She’s playing as good as any goalkeeper in the country,” Mott said. “I had a buddy call me and say he didn’t remember a performance like that from a goalkeeper against USC in NCAA Tournament history. This is a coach that’s been around for 30 years. She’s seeing the ball really well and playing at a really high level.”