It truly is the most wonderful time of the year for Ole Miss soccer as it kicks off NCAA Tournament play with Friday’s head-to-head at Florida State. The Rebels’ seventh tournament appearance in team history marks the third time they’ve duked it out on the national scale in the last five years.
The last time Ole Miss appeared in the tournament saw the Rebels make a historic run to their first-ever Sweet 16, where they fell in a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M. That 2015 performance helped push the Rebels’ all-time tournament record to 3-5-2, a number they will try to improve upon with their first-round matchup with the Seminoles on Friday.
Florida State, who finished at No. 7 in the ACC, with a 5-4-1 conference record, owns the series lead with a commanding 4-0-1 record and has shown Ole Miss the door in NCAA Tournament play twice — in 2002 and 2013.
Ole Miss, despite a respectable 10-6-3 overall record, went an underwhelming 3-6-2 in SEC play, and the talented squad dropped to No. 40 in the final RPI report — 24 spots behind FSU.
In contrast with its disappointing late-season dropoff, capped by a first-round SEC Tournament defeat at the hands of a middle-of-the-pack Arkansas team, Ole Miss boasts a plethora of highly touted and proven playmakers. Led by All-SEC selections CeCe Kizer (first team) and Channing Foster (second team and all-freshman), the Rebels have one of the most dangerous attacks in the country, ranking No. 3 in scoring offense (2.84) and total goals (54), and No. 5 in total points (150) and points per game (7.89).
Kizer and Foster, who rank No. 1 and No. 3 in the SEC in goals on the season, must be in full offensive form to counter the sensational play of Florida State’s Deyna Castellanos, who is not only a star in the NCAA but also a standout in international play. The sophomore forward has been phenomenal for the Venezuelan national team and in September was one of three finalists for the 2017 Best FIFA Women’s Player Award. The defensive nightmare sits one spot ahead of Kizer at No. 2 in the nation in goals per game.
Castellanos is joined by other talented playmakers, including junior midfielder Dallas Dorosy and her seven goals on the season, but it is undoubtedly the Venezuelan sensation who will give Ole Miss head coach Matt Mott the most concern. While stopping Castellanos entirely is near impossible, limiting her output is doable, however difficult it may seem.
Just as important for Ole Miss as lessening Castellanos’ devastating attack will be creating a formidable counterattack of its own. Even with perfect defense, Castellanos or one of her talented peers may still find the net, so a focus on getting Kizer and Foster shots on goal will be of paramount importance, especially late in the match.
The first-round match will kick off at 6 p.m. Friday, and see the winner advance to the second round and face either TCU or Arizona, while the loser’s season will come to a close.