On Monday, the NCAA announced the matchups for this year’s women’s soccer tournament featuring No. 14 North Texas’ first-round matchup against No. 3 Arkansas (16-3-2, 8-1-1 Southeastern). North Texas’ all-time record against the Razorbacks is 2-3-1, with the Mean Green’s last win against Arkansas dating back to Oct. 20, 2011, where they won 2-0 in Denton, Texas. The Mean Green (15-5-1, 7-2-1 Conference USA) will have a chance to win the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament match when they travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 15.
Head coach John Hedlund welcomed the matchup, mainly due to the fact that the two teams play a similar style of soccer. North Texas and Arkansas both accumulated 11 shut out wins in the regular season. However, three of the Razorbacks shut outs came against ranked opponents — No. 1 North Carolina (2-0), No. 22 Baylor (2-0) and No. 15 Vanderbilt (1-0).
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Hedlund said. “We’re all about our defense and now we’re starting to score some goals which is nice. So it’s going to be a very physical game, two teams that kind of mirror each other’s style and a lot of athletes on the field with a lot of speed with two really good goalkeepers.”
It’ll be an interesting matchup for a particular Mean Green player who will be hanging up her cleats at the end of the season. Senior defender Natalie Newell kicked off her collegiate soccer career with the Razorbacks. She played 15 games for them, including appearances in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and helped Arkansas win an SEC championship.
Newell admitted that there were a lot of emotions that came up after seeing the announcement that they were playing Arkansas in the first round. She’ll be returning to the field where she began her career with the chance it’ll be her last college soccer game.
“I’m feeling a lot of emotions,” Newell said. “I’m excited just to get to go back there and just prove something. I think it’ll be cool to be able to go back where I was at my freshman year and just to be able to play on that field one more time.
Hedlund admitted to scouting the Razorbacks due to the fact that both teams resemble each other’s style of play. For Arkansas, they were this year’s runner up in the SEC Tournament after losing 1-0 to South Carolina in the championship match.
“We’ve been kind of watching them from afar even though we didn’t play them this year,” Hedlund said. “I’ve watched them play several times and so we have a good idea of what they can do and I’m sure they’re going to know what we can do.”
This will be the first time in recent memory that the Mean Green will be traveling out of state for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season they suffered a 1-0 loss to Texas A&M, sophomore Kelsey Brann
The last time a member of the Hedlund family traveled to Arkansas for a big game was former Mean Green placekicker Cole Hedlund, who helped the Mean Green football team route the Razorbacks 44-17. Hedlund, like Newell, also transferred to North Texas after playing at Arkansas. He went 3-for-3 in the matchup that gathered national fame for a fake punt return.
“It’s just really weird because every year we’re always within the state, they never pull us out,” Hedlund said. “So I was surprised that we’re actually traveling somewhere. But yeah, it’s kind of neat that [Cole Hedlund] went there for revenge, and hey we can do the same thing.”
After a successful performance in the Conference USA tournament, it helped establish a good source of momentum heading into the final chapter of the season.
“I think coming off a 5-2 win against a really good [Florida Atlantic] team really gives us the extra confidence boost,” Newell said. “I mean all the games in the tournament we won by at least two goals each game. So just knowing that we’re able to beat teams by that much going forward is really driving us and giving us that extra confidence.”
The Mean Green were able to produce on the offensive side of the ball after outscoring their opponents 10-3 within the three-game conference tournament. This was a step up from the last three games of the regular season, when North Texas went 1-1-1 and recorded all seven of their goals from that timespan in one game against Florida International (2-15, 0-10 C-USA).
“I think we have the defense and our offense is starting to really come up, especially in the conference tournament,” Newell said. “I think if we just piece those things together come Friday, we can definitely come out with a win. Arkansas is definitely beatable.”
Featured Image: Sophomore forward Olivia Klein dribbles past defenders to open up for a shot against FAU on Nov. 10, 2019. Image by Zach Thomas