After navigating through some ups and downs in the shortened regular season, Vanderbilt has started to click at the perfect time in the fall 2020 season.
The Commodores won a third straight game in Orange Beach, Alabama on Thursday night, defeating Texas A&M by a 3-1 score in the SEC tournament semifinals. Senior Haley Hopkins scored two crucial goals, including the eventual game winner in the 77th minute. Raegan Kelley extended the lead to 3-1 with 10 minutes left.
Arkansas edged South Carolina in Thursday's other semifinal, holding on for a 2-1 win against the Gamecocks. Goals on either side of halftime were crucial for the Razorbacks, as Caroline Brooks scored her first of the season, before Emilee Hauser chipped in one seven minutes after the break. South Carolina's Ranya Senhaji pulled one back, but Taylor Beitz held strong in the Arkansas goal to preserve the win.
Focus now shifts to Sunday's final (1 p.m. ET, SEC Network) as the Razorbacks seek to avenge last year's championship game loss (they fell 1-0 to South Carolina). They didn't face Vanderbilt at all during the regular season, but hold the edge in terms of experience -- there's a long list of seniors and juniors that see significant minutes, whether it's center back Haley VanFossen, Kayla McKeon, Taylor Malham or Parker Goins. That gives them a solid, tough spine to break down, and the attackers are a bit younger but offer plenty of quality. Sophomore Anna Podojil hasn't been quite as prolific as she was last fall, turning into more of a creator with seven assists to go with her four goals. Freshman Ava Tankersley provides another foil in the final third.
For the Commodores, the offense has clicked to life at the perfect time. After scoring 11 times in the first eight games of the season, Vanderbilt's attack has matched that total in the three games in Orange Beach. And it's come from just about everywhere beyond Hopkins, as her two tallies on Thursday were her first two of the championship. Madison Elwell and Kelley have chipped in a pair of goals each, and that collective approach will be critical in order for the Commodores to pick up the win. Add defender Ella Shamburger, who will have her hands full leading the team's back line effort to shutdown the likes of Podojil and Tankersley.
Set pieces could prove to be the difference. The Razorbacks showed vulnerability there against Auburn in the quarterfinals, jumping out to a 4-0 lead at the half but conceding three times from set pieces to allow the Tigers back into it. That's sure to provide a valuable lesson of course, but in a tightly contested game like this one is sure to be, digging into the tape and looking for chances could provide the edge.