As a new year for Tennessee athletics dawned, the Lady Vols soccer team took the pitch inside Regal Stadium on Friday night hoping not only to get its season off to a good start, but to start the school's entire 2013-14 athletic year on the right foot.
While it was not a picture perfect beginning to the season, the Lady Vols managed to rebound from a rough start and came away with 3-1 victory against the visiting Oklahoma team.
"All wins are good and certainly to get the first one is huge for our team's confidence," head coach Brian Pensky said. "We're a new team, and you never know going into your first game. We had that preseason game last week and so you start to get a feel for your team a little bit, but when you play for real that's when the lights are on and you kinda get to measure yourself.
"(It's) nice to get a win tonight, nice to get a contribution from a lot of different kids and some initial experience from a lot of different kids, so it was a good night all around."
The Lady Vols started off slow, almost giving up an early goal in the fourth minute of play and struggling to adjust to the Sooners game-plan.
"Their system was causing us a lot of problems, so we had a hard time sorting that out throughout the flow of the first half," Pensky said. "We just had to step our lines of pressure up. It was a defensive adjustment, but it was also just telling our kids 'Hey believe in yourself and just play.'"
Senior midfielder Tori Bailey gave the Lady Vols their first sign of life with a great individual effort to put her team up 1-0 in the 14th minute.
"I think it was just good for the team," Bailey said. "Once it went in the back of the net, I think we picked up our level play after that so it meant a lot."
However, after Bailey fouled OU forward Devin Barrett in the box – leading to a successful penalty kick – it appeared the game would be deadlocked at one-to-one heading into halftime. That is, until senior midfielder Caroline Brown scored with 23 seconds remaining in the first half on a goal that Pensky described as the "gamechanger."
"It was a great buildup to start," Brown said. "It was a perfect ball over to Emily (Morrow) who had a great one touch right into the space which made it easy on me and I just took her and beat her one (on) one and I just wasn't gonna give that one up. We hadn't tested the keeper yet so I was just like 'I'm just gonna shoot it and see what happens.'"
The second half was different for the Lady Vols as they took control and never looked back. A goal by junior forward Cheyenne Spade in the 49th minute gave the NC State transfer her first goal as a Lady Vol and improved the UT lead to 3-1.
"It was really exciting," Spade said. "I had to watch it go in about three times, I didn't think it was going, but it went in, so I was excited."
Other than the three goals, goalkeeping was a major factor in the win as junior Julie Eckel registered eight saves and could have had a possible shutout if not for the penalty kick.
"Julie is a stud," Pensky said. "She's had a good preseason and she comes into this season with 44 career starts under her belt and that's huge and we saw that experience show. ... You can't put a price on experience and she now has 45 starts, she's been big time."
The victory continues a historical trend of UT opening the season on a good start as the Lady Vols have now won seven straight season openers.
"I didn't realize until my dad sent me a text today that the last time Tennessee lost a season opener was all the way back in 2006," Pensky said. "I liked hearing that in someways, but in someways we don't like that pressure so now it's just nice to know that we're 1-0."
The Lady Vols also lost at Sanford 1-0 on Sunday night. They will face off against the UCF Knights on Friday in Orlando, Fla. at 7 p.m.