The Columbus State soccer team is back in a familiar place, having qualified for the NCAA tournament for the eighth straight season, and their first-round foe is a familiar face.
Columbus State (14-6) -- the No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region -- takes on Peach Belt Conference rival and No. 5 seed Clayton State (11-3-6) in the first round Friday at 1 p.m. at the Cannon Complex on the campus of Wingate (N.C.) University.
"We're definitely excited about going back (to the NCAA tournament)," said sophomore forward Chelsea Person, who has eight goals and two assists for Columbus State this season. "We were a bit worried due to some of the losses we had the season went along, but we're excited to go back and especially when our first match is against a team that beat us this season. It's something that will definitely motivate us."
The winner of the CSU-Clayton State matchup will take on No. 1 seed Wingate (15-2-3) in the second round Sunday at 1 p.m.
Columbus State got to the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference tournament last week before falling, 2-1, to Georgia College. That loss dropped the Lady Cougars from a potential host site to the No. 4 seed and set up the rematch with Clayton State.
Clayton State won the first match, 3-0, back on Oct. 20 in Morrow, but there were mitigating circumstances to that first meeting. First, Columbus State played a tough match against NCAA tournament team Valdosta State two days prior -- winning 2-1 at the Walden Soccer Complex -- while Clayton State had fresh legs, not having had a match since Oct. 16.
Also, the Lady Cougars lost one of their top defenders to a freak injury just before the match, forcing coach Jay Entlich to move his players out of their accustomed starting spots on the pitch.
"When I saw that we got paired with Clayton State, I just thought it was God giving us a second chance," said Person. "We got a second go at them and I think that's good because to me, the first match wasn't really fair. We'd had a rough match the previous Friday and one of our best players had a fluke injury right before the match. This time, everybody's fresh and had a week to prepare and it's at a neutral site, so we'll be ready."
Also, one has to wonder when the Lakers' streak of good fortune might run out. Clayton State -- the top seed in the PBC tournament -- had to go to penalty kicks to beat a 3-8-5 Montevallo team in the opening round, won in overtime against Lander in the semifinals and again had to go to PK's to get past Georgia College.
CSU's record may not be that pretty compared to other tournament teams -- only three other squads in the field have as many as six losses -- but the Lady Cougars have played one of the tougher schedules in the country to prepare themselves for the postseason.
Three of the Lady Cougars' six losses came to NCAA tournament teams (Grand Valley State (Mich.), West Florida -- both of whom are No. 1 seeds in their respective regions -- and Clayton State), another came to a PBC team that was ranked as high as No. 10 nationally this year (North Georgia) and one was at the hands of Lee, a team that stayed in its region rankings most of the year and was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. The last loss came to Georgia College, which went 4-2-1 in its last seven matches and advanced to the PBC tournament title match.
"(Entlich) is a very intelligent coach," said Person. "We've played a tough schedule all season and I feel like it prepared us to face tough teams in the postseason. We played the best teams possible and did well against them. Honestly, I don't think we could face a team that's any better than the ones we've already played this year. It was very smart to schedule that way and prepare us so we could learn and build off of it."
Person said taking advantage of scoring chances will play a big role in determining which team emerges victorious on Friday afternoon.
"The first thing for us is that we have to put our shots away," said Person. "We have to put our shots on frame, follow them up and put them away if we have a chance to.
"However, we also need to take care of our defensive responsibilities. Each of us has to win our individual matchups."
The other half of the Southeast Region sees No. 3 Belmont Abbey (14-3-3) facing No. 6 Pfeiffer (13-6-1) at 2 p.m. on Friday on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina and the winner of that match gets No. 2 seed Lenoir-Rhyne (14-4-1) Sunday at 2 p.m. in the second round. The winners of each site will square off in the Southeast Region finals Nov. 22.