The No. 9-overall USC women’s soccer team is set to face No. 22 Texas A&M Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as it looks to stay in the hunt for the program’s third national championship.
The Trojans enter the game coming off a resounding 5-1 victory over Cal State Fullerton last weekend. Sophomore forward Penelope Hocking dominated the tournament opener, carrying the team with 4 goals and one assist. Her outstanding performance gave her the USC record for points in a single game with 9 and tied the program record for most goals in a game at 4.
Junior forward/midfielder Alea Hyatt also played a key offensive role as she assisted Hocking three times to tie the program record for most assists in a game. Prior to the game, Hyatt was switched from midfield to attack, filling the role of injured junior forward Tara McKeown, who has been phenomenal for the Trojans all year.
Last season, McKeown played less of an attacking role, but personnel changes this offseason moved her into her more natural position, and it has paid off. Hyatt saw a similar leap in production when she was moved. Before playing Fullerton, she had been quiet statistically, but her outburst now puts her at five assists on the season.
The decision to move Hyatt was made quite late, and Hocking said she was “surprised” when Hyatt began practicing as a forward. However, the move ended up being for the best.
“I am glad we had that connection,” Hocking said after the win.
If McKeown is unable to return against Texas A&M, the Trojans will need someone other than Hocking to step up offensively. Last week, that person was Hyatt, and it could be her time to shine again.
Whoever ends up playing that second forward spot will face a tough Texas A&M defense that has been stellar all season, earning 11 shutouts on the year.
The 14-4-3 Aggies also took care of business easily in the first round. They took down Texas 4-1 and will have had a week to prepare for anything USC throws at them.
The Aggies played a tough SEC schedule in the regular season. They’ve only lost once to then-No. 8 Arkansas and then-No. 10 BYU and twice to Florida. BYU is now No. 4 while Arkansas maintains the No. 8 spot. In addition, the Aggies knocked off then-No. 13 Santa Clara in their second game of the year.
The only common opponents that USC and Texas A&M have played are Pepperdine and Florida. USC played significantly better against both opponents while the Aggies struggled against Florida, losing 3-1 and 2-1.
USC may look to exploit the same weaknesses that Florida did, but last week head coach Keidane McAlpine emphasized that USC needs to stay true to itself to make a deep playoff run.
Hocking said the team needs to “stay focused” and “stay working together” heading into playoffs.
“It’s just important that we all work super hard,” Hocking said. “This team is really special.”
Defensively, USC will need to watch out for the offensive prowess of senior forward Ally Watt — who has 15 goals on the season — and junior defender Jimena Lopez, who is dangerous from the backfield with 14 assists.
Overall, USC should feel comfortable heading into this game. With Hocking on fire and the defense playing well, the Trojans will make a formidable opponent to any team they play for the time being.
“I think we just realize it’s win or go home,” Hyatt said. “We want another week.”
If USC takes care of business Friday, the winner of No. 20 Santa Clara and No. 13 Oklahoma State will provide a daunting third-round challenge.
Friday’s game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. at McAlister Field.