Tennessee soccer stuns Arkansas to win first SEC Tournament championship since 2008

Cora Hall
Knoxville News Sentinel

Wrenne French ran the route for corner kicks she has run almost 200 times this season. But this time, it all fell into place as she flew through the air, her head connecting with Hannah Zaluski’s floating cross.

French, a fifth-year senior from Franklin, Tennessee, drove the ball toward the ground and past Arkansas’ Hannah Warner to put Tennessee on the scoreboard first in the 43rd minute of the SEC Tournament championship game. No. 10 Tennessee (18-2) beat No. 5 Arkansas (16-4) 3-0 on Sunday in Orange Beach, Alabama, to give the Lady Vols their first SEC Tournament championship since 2008. 

"I'm feeling so incredibly thankful and so incredibly proud," French said. "It's crazy to think that this happening in my fifth year. This could have been a year that I didn't even get to have if it weren't for COVID (eligibility) or if it weren't for certain circumstances. So I'm just feeling incredibly thankful that I was given this opportunity and I was able to experience it with everyone."

"I wish I could freeze this moment forever," coach Brian Pensky said.

Tennessee soccer wins SEC Tournament

Tennessee’s three wins in the tournament – two over ranked teams – have made a case for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols will find out their draw  at 4:30 p.m. Monday. 

"We came into the day kind of right on the bubble of being a 2-seed," Pensky said. "Certainly this should sew that up and (we'll be) home in Knoxville next weekend."

BRACE FOR THE WIN:Jaida Thomas sends Tennessee soccer to first SEC Tournament title game since 2008

THE SEC'S BEST:Brian Pensky of Tennessee named SEC Coach of the Year; Taylor Huff is Freshman of the Year

FRESHMAN SENSATION:Tennessee soccer's Taylor Huff doesn't need to score to make an impact. But she usually does anyway

The win avenged UT's 3-1 loss the Arkansas to open SEC play Sept. 17. Arkansas has now gone to the SEC Tournament championship game six years in a row and lost each time. 

"This team is just a lot more experienced and a lot more ready," French said, comparing the two Arkansas games. "We knew their game and it was just a completely different kind of mentality going into it."

Midfielder Abbey Burdette was awarded SEC Tournament MVP after playing all but three minutes of the tournament for Tennessee. Burdette scored and had five shots against Florida on Tuesday and provided consistency in the midfield in defending and attacking for Tennessee all tournament. A perfectly executed tackle from Burdette, just yards from Tennessee's goal, made sure Arkansas was shut out.

"(Burdette) was shut out of All-SEC honors and awards and she came down here this week on a mission to show this league that she's a good player and she certainly did that," Pensky said. "Talk about a behind the scenes leader, a kid who winning is so important to her."

French, Mackenzie George and Jaida Thomas joined Burdette on the SEC All-Tournament team. George had a goal and assist and Thomas scored five goals with an assist and led the team with 10 shots in three games.

The first 15 minutes of the game, it looked like Tennessee might be on the opposite side of the 3-0 score. The Razorbacks had UT pinned back in its half, frantically defending attack after attack. 

But Tennessee settled in and began to launch attacks of its own, largely led by George, who forced several corner kicks and found success in the wide areas with Arkansas heavily marking Thomas. 

But for the fifth time in the tournament, Thomas showed how dangerous she is from close range. Claire Rain crossed the ball into Thomas in the 51st minute, and she got a touch to send the ball into the net and give Tennessee a 2-0 lead. Arkansas struggled to get momentum back after that, though it forced Lindsey Romig to show her athleticism in goal.  

Romig had four saves, including a few clutch ones in the second half to keep the Razorbacks scoreless. It was UT's only shutout of the tournament and their largest margin of victory. They defeated Florida 5-2 and No. 21 Ole Miss 3-2 on their way to the title game.

"We've talked all week about ... her being physically and mentally tough, and she answered that bell today," Pensky said of Romig. "I'm so happy for her, that she's able to feel so good about herself right now in this moment, because she deserves it."

Tennessee’s third goal came from senior Hannah Tillett, who has put in solid minutes off the bench all season. Thomas dribbled her way to Arkansas’ end line and passed it back into the box, rolling right into Tillett's feet. She took one touch to bury it and give Tennessee all the momentum for the last 22 minutes. 

It was Tennessee's 11th shut out of the year, which is in no small part due to its back line, made up of French, Rain, Tara Katz and Lawson Renie. Rain and Renie are both freshmen, and lead the team in minutes with French and Katz. French credits their consistency, which has only allowed 9.4 shots per game, to trust and hard work.

"It's building that trust with one another that you're gonna have each other's back," French said. "I would trust my life with any single one of them and I'm just extremely proud to play next to all of them."