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Alexander ignites Redhawks in 1-0 win
Southeast reached title game of the OVC soccer tournament with a victory over Tennessee-Martin.
Southeast Missouri State's attack was stagnant without the Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year on the field.
But once Courtney Alexander entered the match with about 30 minutes remaining, there was a noticeable difference.
"She's so quick, she opens up a lot of holes for us," Southeast freshman forward Ashley Runion said.
Runion was the beneficiary of a play that Alexander started, scoring the only goal as host Southeast edged Tennessee-Martin 1-0 Friday night in the semifinals of the OVC tournament.
The top-seeded Redhawks, the OVC regular-season champions, play second-seeded Samford at 1 p.m. Sunday in the title match at Houck Stadium.
"We're one win away from returning to the NCAAs," said Southeast coach Heather Nelson, whose squad won last year's OVC tournament that was hosted by Samford.
Alexander, a sophomore forward, was voted the OVC offensive player of the year Thursday.
But during a double-overtime home win over Samford on Oct. 28 that gave the Redhawks the OVC regular-season crown, Alexander was shaken up.
Alexander was diagnosed with a concussion, and although she was cleared by Southeast's medical staff to play Friday, she began the match on the bench.
"We were being cautious, especially early, when we knew it would be physical," Nelson said.
Said Alexander: "I was just taking it easy. I wanted to be smart about it."
Alexander said she assumed she would be entering the match at some point.
After a scoreless first half, that time came with about 30 minutes remaining in the second half. To that point, the Redhawks had few dangerous chances.
That almost changed immediately upon Alexander entering the contest.
Less than three minutes after she came into the game, Southeast was on the attack and Alexander dropped a ball to senior midfielder Lauren Costello, who sent a ball toward the UT-Martin net.
UT-Martin keeper Johanna Rathburn came out to try and make a play on the ball, but she missed it.
The ball bounced right to Runion, who tapped it into an empty net with 27 minutes, 41 seconds remaining in regulation.
"The goalie went for it and it went through her," Runion said. "It was just sitting there for me."
Runion, the OVC freshman of the year who leads the conference in points per game, scored her team-high 10th goal of the season, with Costello earning an assist.
The Redhawks, who barely failed to capitalize on another solid chance minutes later, were able to preserve their lead as they improved to 12-2-2. Southeast is unbeaten in its last 11 matches, with 10 wins and a tie.
Southeast held a 12-9 edge in shots during the evenly-played match.
Nelson, the OVC coach of the year, expected nothing less than a tight battle against the fourth-seeded Skyhawks (10-6-3), who played Southeast to a scoreless tie on Oct. 21 in Martin, Tenn.
"It was a tough game. We knew it would be," said Nelson, whose squad failed to beat only UT-Martin during its 8-0-1 conference season. "They're well organized and they have some talented players."
Southeast senior keeper Lindsay Pickering, the OVC defensive player of the year, recorded her league-leading eighth shutout of the season and pushed her all-time conference record to 28 shutouts. She was credited with four saves.
Now the Redhawks will gear up for what figures to be an interesting rematch -- and with plenty on the line.
Samford, which beat sixth-seeded Eastern Illinois 1-0 in Friday's other semifinal, was denied a fifth straight OVC regular-season title when Southeast knocked off the Bulldogs (15-4) on Oct. 28.
The winner of Sunday's championship match earns the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
"It will be a great game. They're always nailbiters when we play them," Nelson said.
Alexander said she will be ready to go from the start.
"I'll be out there," she said. "I think we're the best two teams in the conference and we're very excited to play them again. I think it will be great."