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Todd Yelton’s chuckle over how the 2022 regular season concluded for his Samford University women’s soccer team still comes complete with a twinge of relief. No doubt it was an interesting two weeks in Southern Conference play.

At stake, over those two weeks, was the chance to end an impressive streak. Heading into this season, Samford was riding a streak of eight consecutive Southern League championships in women’s soccer. Heading down the stretch, extending the streak seemed doubtful, at best.

“Even I thought it was a mountain to climb,” said Yelton.

Heading into the next-to-last week of regular season play, the Bulldogs had a 3-1-3 SoCon record with eight points. Chattanooga, the SoCon leader, was 5-0-2 with 17 points. Four other teams were in between those two in the standings.

“I think the message at that point was to control what you can control,” Yelton said. “What we did know, if we were able to win out, we would at least host part of the conference tournament. We realized that was super important. That, ultimately, became our goal. And if we were fortunate enough to get more out of it, then we’d be thankful for it.”

Samford tied East Tennessee State, allowing the equalizer in the final minute, and beat Western Carolina. That moved them into a tie for second place, but they still trailed Chattanooga by five points heading into the final two games of conference play.

The Bulldogs took care of business, earning six points on the road with a 4-0 win over Furman and a 2-1 victory at Wofford. Chattanooga dropped a 2-0 decision to Wofford and finished the regular season with a 1-1 draw at Furman. At the end of it all, Samford and Chattanooga shared the conference title.

“When we walked off the field [at Wofford], we didn’t know,” said Yelton, who is 262-107-56 in 20 seasons at Samford with 14 regular season conference titles, six NCAA Tournament appearances and five conference tournament championships. “Obviously, we checked really quickly and saw what the result was. I think I would describe us getting our ninth [in a row] as surprise and relief. We didn’t necessarily see that coming.”

It certainly wasn’t an easy ride, considering the weight of the expectations and some key injuries during the season.

“One of the most pivotal things about a streak is keeping a streak alive, especially we’re getting to the number we’re getting to,” Yelton said. “If we’re fortunate enough to win it another year, that’s a decade. That doesn’t happen in college athletics. The streak, in itself, puts pressure on us. If you drop a few points, here or there, then everybody wants to know what’s wrong. Those are the expectations at Samford. It can make life difficult when you’re trying to maintain.”

As always, balance and persistence marked the Bulldogs’ play. Whitaker Buchanan had a team-high 11 points while Kylie Gazza, Taylor Yount, Layton Glisson and Ella Simpson each tied for the team lead with four goals apiece. When standout goalkeeper Morgan McAslan went down with an injury, redshirt freshman Emma Donley stepped in down the stretch and was outstanding.

Now, it’s on to the next step. Southern Conference Tournament play begins on Friday. Samford and Chattanooga, which won the tiebreaker to determine the top seed, will each host four-team brackets. The winner of each bracket will play in the championship game next week with the higher seed hosting.

The Bulldogs first game comes against The Citadel on Friday at 3:30 p.m. Samford’s lone loss in SoCon was a 1-0 setback to The Citadel on Sept. 23. The winner of that game will face the winner of Friday’s second game between East Tennessee State and Mercer. Samford played to a draw against each of those teams in the regular season.

“I think our kids are super motivated to have the opportunity to play Citadel once again and both of those games, ETSU and Mercer, we gave up a goal with less than two minutes to not get a win,” Yelton said. “I think we know that it’s going to be difficult.”

Need more intrigue? Yelton’s brothers make up the coaching staff at ETSU. Jay Yelton spent 17 seasons at Stanford before taking over as the head coach at ETSU in 2020. Matt Yelton, who was 245-42-2 in 13 seasons with four NAIA national championships as the head coach at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, joined his brother at ETSU in 2020.

Todd Yelton said he doesn’t enjoy competing against his brothers’ team but knows his group is ready for the challenge.

“We are who we are at this point in time,” Yelton said. “It’s pretty much business as usual, with the understanding that the teams we will be playing, because we’ve been fortunate enough to have such great success in the league, everybody wants to beat Samford.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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