Win, tie or bust: In regular-season finale, soccer will face conference leader for a shot at MAC tournament

Jacob Shondel, Reporter

The top six teams make the Mid-American Conference tournament, and Kent State’s soccer team earns a spot with a win or tie in its final conference game.

Thursday, the Flashes face Buffalo – the best team in the league.

“We’re excited to take on another conference opponent,” coach Rob Marinaro said. “We’ve spent the last few days just going over what has made us successful this season, so we can go out there tomorrow and give our best fight we’ve had all year.”

All season, teams have been awarded three points for a win, one for a tie and none for a loss. The six highest-scoring teams qualify for the tournament quarterfinals Oct. 30. The semifinals are Nov. 3 and finals are on Nov. 6.

Kent State has 17 points. Miami and Ohio are tied for fifth with 16 points. Buffalo has 22.

KSU is fourth in the MAC at 4-1-5 and 4-6-7 overall.

Buffalo is undefeated in conference play at 6-0-4 and 12-1-4 on the season. The team’s only loss was to No. 20 Rutgers.

Buffalo has scored 31 goals this season, and Kent State has 18.

“They’ve been the most successful team in the conference, and we’re ready for this opportunity,” Marinaro said.

All season long, KSU’s strength has been its defense. The Bulls rank first in shots allowed with 131 shots. Kent is third at 172.

“Working hard for 90 minutes” and being the “aggressor” on the field has brought the 22nd-season coach’s team the most success. “It’s winning loose balls so we can put more pressure on them,” he said, “having our defense make it difficult for the other teams and having that transition into more offensive opportunities for us.”

Redshirt senior Tianna Harris, the 2021 MAC defensive player of the year, leads KSU’s defense. Buffalos’ Tess Ford has won defensive player of the week twice this season.

For success Thursday, KSU’s offense must “build confidence early.”

“We’ve had to generate offense in a lot of different ways,” Marinaro said. “We need our offense as a whole to step up by getting numbers in the box and creating opportunities.”

Kent State has had 84 corner-kick opportunities this season, which is the third most in the MAC. Buffalo has had 93.

In practice this week, the Flashes have focused more on this offensive strategy.

“We’re looking at how we can break down Buffalo to be successful,” Marinaro said. “Everyone needs to be ready from minute one tomorrow.”

Buffalo’s Arianna Zumpano and Jasmine Guerber are in the top 10 for goals scored in the MAC. Kent State has none.

Buffalo has allowed four goals in MAC play – and three came in the first 20 minutes of a game.

“A good start builds confidence for anyone,” Marinaro said. “Putting pressure on them, so they feel a little nervous, is important. We don’t want to allow them to build too much confidence.”

Kent State’s senior goalkeeper Sarah Melén has made 57 saves on the season – Buffalo’s goalie has 51.

Melén has faced 83 shots on goal. Buffalo’s goalie Emily Kelly has faced 60.

Marinaro said his team needs to “limit opportunities” so it can come out with the win.

“We have to make them a little bit more uncomfortable when they’re attacking,” he said. “It needs to feel like we’re always coming at them.”

Buffalo is first in the MAC in shots attempted with 274. Kent is tenth with 154.

Sophomores Alisa Arthur and Siena Stambolich and freshman Kelsey Salopek have each scored three goals this season.

Marinaro is excited to see how the young players respond to the pressure this game brings.

“You’re talking about a lot of freshmen that have never really been in this situation,” he said. “We’re going to depend on our older players to lead them and show them how it’s done.”

“It’s been a pretty strong formula for us in conference play, so we’ll look to continue doing that tomorrow.”

The Flashes play Thursday at 3 p.m. at Zoeller Field.

“The seniors get excited for this time of year. They know the opportunity they have ahead of them,” Marinaro said. “They’re bringing the team along and making sure that everybody steps up and plays the best game that we can play tomorrow.”

Jacob Shondel is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected].