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Van Curens goal lifts GSU to first SoCon title
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala—Sydnie Van Curen capped Georgia Southern’s historic Southern Conference Tournament run Sunday, netting the winning shootout penalty kick against Furman in the SoCon championship match.

The goal clinched the Eagles’ first league title and a trip to the NCAA tournament. The eighth-seeded Eagles won the league title in a penalty kick shootout, 5-4, over third-seeded Furman.

Georgia Southern will travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., to meet third-seeded Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Game time is Saturday at 7 p.m.

"Our path to the championship was a long, strange trip, but it built our character and probably was the reason for our success," said head coach Lindsey Vanderspiegel. "We told the team that the hardest part was making the tournament. Once we did we get in, we knew the tournament could be ours. We never felt like an eighth seed — it was really just a number to us. We just looked at the opponent and tried to take it one game at a time."

Just after the half-hour mark, a well-placed through ball from Stephanie Gratto found Van Curen, a former Effingham County High star, on a breakaway. The sophomore struck the ball just outside the penalty area, but her shot sailed just over the bar as the match remained tied despite the Eagles pressuring the Paladins in the early minutes.

In the 74th minute, Georgia Southern had another chance that went just wide of the post. Courtney Collins got on the end of an arcing through ball at the edge of the six-yard box. The senior’s shot beat the Furman keeper, but swerved just wide of the post, going for a goal kick.

With 10 minutes left in regulation, goalkeeper Katie Merson made her biggest save of the season when she denied a shot from point blank range, keeping the score at 0-0.

"I feel like we created a good number of opportunities tonight," said Vanderspiegel. "We kept knocking on the door offensively. I’m glad that our team didn’t set back and make the game into a defensive battle."

With three minutes left in the second half, Merson made another superb save to deny Furman’s Stephanie DeVita who was named SoCon Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year this season. The Eagles got one more attack before the final whistle in regulation, but were unable to find the back of the net.

In the final minute of the first overtime period Georgia Southern had another chance which found the mitts of the Furman goalkeeper. Nora El-Shami delivered the ball perfectly to the center of the box, but the ensuing shot found the goalkeeper as the teams remained scoreless through 100 minutes of play.

Neither team was able to score in the second overtime, forcing the match to penalties for the first time since 2008 in the title game and the first time in Georgia Southern program history.

In the penalty shootout the first three kick takers made their attempts to make it 3-3 through as many rounds. McKenna Storey missed her attempt as did Furman in the fourth round. Zoe Van Gorder took Georgia Southern’s fifth attempt and made her penalty, as did Furman to send the match to a sixth round. Cori Dulmage had her attempt saved, but a miss by Furman in that round gave Van Curen a shot. She converted her attempt, while a miss off the crossbar by Furman gave the Eagles their first SoCon Championship in program history.

"That’s a tough way to go out for Furman, but I’m so proud of our seniors coming together to get the win," said Vanderspiegel. "Katie Merson was phenomenal for us tonight and our defense played a lights-out game to get the win."

The Eagles became the first eighth-seeded team to reach the SoCon Tournament Final in league history. The previous low seed to reach the final was Davidson in 2009, reaching the final as the fourth seed in the four-team tournament.

Overall, Georgia Southern was out-shot 16-6 in the match, but Merson made six saves in the contest and picked up SoCon Tournament Most Valuable Player honors.

The Eagles advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history with a 10-7-5 overall record.