Birmingham, Ala. -- The 22nd season of Southeastern Conference soccer kicks off on Friday with 13 matches across the country. Since the SEC began sponsoring soccer as a varsity sport in 1993, the sport's popularity has continued to soar, along with the success of the league's teams.
Friday marks another historic milestone as Georgia and Ole Miss will square off in the first live regular-season event televised by the SEC Network, the 24-hour multiplatform sports network focused solely on the SEC. Start time is slated for 7 p.m. ET from the Ole Miss Soccer Complex in Oxford, Miss.
Host Ole Miss is coming off one of the finest seasons in program history, posting a 16-6-2 overall record and a 7-3-1 mark in league play, and marking the most wins (16) in school annals. The Rebels advanced to the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual NCAA runner-up Florida State.
Ole Miss lost its top-two goal scorers from a year ago in NSCAA Second-Team All-America Rafaelle Souza, who tied for the SEC lead in goals with 22 last year, and Mandy McCalla, who tallied 15 goals in 2013. The Rebels do return senior goalkeeper Kelly McCormick, who ranked fifth in the SEC last season with 79 saves, and is Ole Miss' all-time career wins leader with 34.
"It's an honor for us to open up on the SEC Network," said Ole Miss head coach Matt Mott, who enters his fifth year leading the Rebels. "Our team is excited about it and our fans are excited about it. We're very lucky to be hosting and we have a great opponent in Georgia."
Georgia enters the 2014 campaign with added motivation after narrowly missing an NCAA Tournament appearance a year ago. The Bulldogs posted a 12-7-1 record in 2013, including a 5-5-1 mark in the SEC. Georgia returns six starters and 17 letterwinners from last year's squad.
The Bulldogs welcome back sophomore Marion Crowder who, as a rookie, led Georgia in goals (11) and points (23), ranking ninth in the SEC in total goals last year. Georgia lost senior goalkeeper Caitlin Woody, who played every minute for the Bulldogs a year ago and ranked ninth in the SEC with 70 saves.
"What an incredible opportunity for us," Georgia head coach Steve Holeman said. "We were given the opportunity to adjust our schedule and play Ole Miss on the SEC Network; it was an opportunity that we could not miss out on. Our staff and team are very excited."
Holeman, the longest-tenured active head coach in the SEC, is in his fifth season leading the Georgia program after serving as the head coach at Ole Miss from 1995-2009.
Opening a soccer season with a conference match is a rarity that has altered practices for both squads in the preseason, but both head coaches feel their teams have made the appropriate preparations to be ready for Friday night's matchup.
"We always want to be ready with the first game, but there is a different intensity level with a conference game," Mott said. "It's such an important game, but we've had enough time to get prepared mentally and physically. I like where we are as a team."
The importance of Friday's outcome is lost on neither team, as the winner has the opportunity to take an early lead in the conference race weeks before the remainder of the league slate begins in mid-September.
"Our team is motivated and they're ready," Holeman said. "You know that you have a chance, in one match, to either lead the conference or be chasing from behind on day one. We know how big of a game this is."
Crowder, an SEC All-Freshman selection and a second-team NSCAA All-South Region pick in 2013, echoes her coach's sentiments and feels that playing a conference foe to begin the season will help set the tone for her team's preparation in the coming weeks.
"Our preseason has been way more focused, driven and direct," Crowder said. "This is a really good opportunity starting with conference and going to non-conference. Playing Ole Miss, we will get a look at what we need to work on and then going out of conference, we'll be able to tweak the things that didn't work Friday and pursue the things that did. I think this will play to our strengths."
Mott expects a big crowd to descend upon the Ole Miss Soccer Complex on Friday to witness a historic match between two strong SEC soccer programs.
"Our marketing department has done a great job to get people to come out and be a part of history," Mott said. "We hope to create a great atmosphere. I think we will have a huge crowd. We hope to set an attendance record and have a fun night of SEC soccer."