(1) Stanford vs (2) Oklahoma State – Palo Alto, California – 10:00 PM EST
It’s irresistible force vs immovable object time in the Elite Eight in Palo Alto on Friday night as two clubs who’ve combined for just one loss in 2011 (and that was right at the death) meet up for a titanic clash and a spot in Kennesaw and the College Cup. Stanford have looked like a team on a mission after coming up short in the previous two National Title matches. Stanford’s mowed through most of their regular season opponents, with just Maryland able to take anything off of them all season. It’s been easy street for the most part in the NCAA Tournament, with the Card rolling to convincing wins over Montana, South Carolina, and Boston College, though they were forced to fight a bit more for the win over the Eagles. These may be trying times in Stillwater, but the Cowgirls are doing their very best to push through and achieve their dream of making it to the College Cup. A swarming, smothering defense has shut down almost everyone in their path this season, including shutout wins over Illinois and Maryland to help get them to this point. But the Cowgirls were bitten hard by the injury bug against the Illini when a leg injury to Carson Michalowski, one half of the team’s dominant center-back pairing, took the junior down and out for the rest of the season. That’s a foreboding sign against one of the nation’s most potent offenses.
Stanford – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – Emily Oliver took the reins in the Stanford goal a few matches into her freshman season and hasn’t really looked back. Oliver’s mature and skilled play as a rookie helped Stanford make a run back to the College Cup, while her performance in the final dazzled onlookers and kept the match from being a rout. After struggling through injuries early in the season, Oliver has reclaimed her health and starting role in between the pipes and has made a series of crucial saves while Stanford’s unbeaten run has continued unchecked. Into the later rounds now, she’ll be called upon to make more big saves as the Card chases the big prize.
Defenders – Deadly up the flanks in support of the attack and not bad at the heart of the backline either, Stanford has one of the premier units in all the land at their disposal. Senior Camille Levin has been a revelation playing full-back this season after being shuttled around in numerous positions last year for the Card. As you might expect with someone with such attacking chops, Levin is dangerous bombing up and down the flanks to help out the forwards. Levin is also thrust into the midfield by the Card to utilize her ability to break opponents down with her slaloming runs if Stanford is struggling to create offensively. Opposite of her is Rachel Quon, a junior who switched over from right-back to left-back this season to accommodate Levin. Quon hasn’t quite racked up the assists like last season but has still helped keep the Stanford engine ticking with her overlapping runs down the left side. In the center, Stanford will rely on Mexican international Alina Garciamendez, a big, technically efficient junior who has been a fixture at center-back since stepping foot in Palo Alto before the 2009 season. Likely partnering her is redshirt freshman Kendall Romine. Romine’s been afflicted by a steady stream of injuries throughout her career but has also shown signs of quality when she’s been on the pitch this season. Romine missed the Montana match though, and if she gets nicked, the honors will likely fall to junior Madeleine Thompson, seldom used the last two seasons but one of the team’s top reserves this year. If Levin is moved into a more attacking role, sophomore Annie Case, who started at left-back last year, will likely be inserted into the lineup.
Midfielders – Whether it’s a playmaker, a destroyer, or just flat-out energy you like, Stanford’s sensational midfield has something for you. Most of the attention comes upon Mexican international Teresa Noyola, a senior who has just about done it all in the college game except lift the national title. Though Noyola does have the ability to score goals as her eighteen in the last two seasons can confirm, it’s her ability to pull the strings and change the game with one pass that coach Paul Ratcliffe will be counting on on Friday. Noyola has at least one assist in each of Stanford’s NCAA Tournament matches so far and will look to add to that total against OSU. The antithesis of Noyola is junior Mariah Nogueira, a blood and thunder destroyer in front of the back four. Nogueira is a rock in the midfield and has shined as one of the nation’s best defensive midfielders this season. She’s also got the power to put the ball in the back of the net with a powerful shot at her disposal, in addition to great ability in the air. Nogueira’s also in fine scoring form in the NCAA Tournament with a goal in each of the first two rounds. Providing the non-stop energy is senior Kristy Zurmuhlen, who after playing just eleven games her first two years here, has emerged as an integral part of the Card, first off the bench last year, and now as a midfielder with fantastic workrate in the middle of the park. She’s also good for the odd goal or assist here and there, with four of each this year. Zurmuhlen was nicked against South Carolina though and wasn’t at her best against Boston College, resulting in Levin moving into the midfield. If Levin is needed in the middle of the park again, it’ll most likely be Zurmuhlen that gives way.
Forwards – The years may change in Palo Alto, but Stanford’s offense keeps knocking them in at an alarming rate despite turnover in personnel up front. The main triggerwoman for Stanford’s offense this season is senior LindsayTaylor, continuing a long line of impressive Card forwards that has included Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press in recent seasons. Known as being somewhat inconsistent in past seasons, Taylor has emerged as a true top-flight striker this season and is one goal away from hitting twenty on the year. Possessing pace, agility, and a laser of a shot, Taylor has a goal in eight of her last ten matches and points in nine of her last ten. Stanford fans are hoping she can take a step beyond Press and O’Hara and finally lead the Card to the national title. Joining her up front will be freshman prodigy Chioma Ubogagu, widely thought of as the next big thing at both club and international level as a promising U.S. U20 prospect. Ubogagu claimed a well deserved Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award with nine goals and nine assists to her name and is just scratching the surface of her massive potential. She may be hitting a bit of a rookie wall though, having scored just once in her last seven. With Taylor likely to draw the attentions of Melinda Mercado, Stanford needs Ubogagu to have a good game to help open things up. Filling the third forward slot has been a constant source of frustration for Stanford the past two seasons, with junior Marjani Hing-Glover filling the role in recent weeks. A former reserve, Hing-Glover worked her way into the lineup with her blistering shot and aggressive mentality. She’s also a bit out of form though and has been held pointless through the last six matches and will be another attacker looking to get back on the scoresheet.
Reserves – Making heads or tails of Stanford’s bench is a real conundrum, since the team is challenged so seldomly, leaving it a mystery for the most part as to how deep Ratcliffe will dip into his reserves in a crunch situation. Annie Case is, as mentioned above, a dependable option at left-back if Levin is moved forward, while Madeleine Thompson could see any spare minutes at center-back. Sydney Payne started for much of the season but continues to be frustratingly erratic for the Card, having scored just once in the last ten matches. She’ll be fighting for reserve minutes up front, along with sophomore Natalie Griffen. In the middle, minutes have been tough to come by for the most part, but what is available will likely fall to youngsters Taylor McCann and Alex Doll.
Oklahoma State – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – Anyone with a prayer of beating Stanford over the next few weeks better have a talented keeper to make some inevitably big saves for them. In that respect, Oklahoma State can rest easy in knowing they’ve got junior Adrianna “AD” Franch on their side. One of the very best goalkeepers in the college ranks at the moment and a potential future #1 for the USWNT, Franch has the capability to make stunning reflex saves while also showing good command of her area to go along with a booming leg for punts and goal kicks. Franch also is a great penalty stopper as Maryland can tell you first hand after they had a spot kick denied by the junior in last weekend’s third round game in Stillwater.
Defenders – What was once thought of as one of the premier units in all the land now faces some serious question marks going forward after the season ending injury to Carson Michalowski. Michalowski was one half of an imposing center-back duo that now has to shuffle the pack a bit. Still up and running though is senior Melinda Mercado, a 5’10” tower of power in defense with deceptive pace and enough strength to outmuscle many a forward. She’ll be more important than ever with the threat of Lindsay Taylor everpresent. Another good showing from Mercado could push her into the early rounds of the WPS Draft. To compensate for the loss in defense, OSU will likely shift fellow senior Elizabeth DeLozier into the defense from midfield. It worked fine on Sunday against Maryland, but Stanford isn’t Maryland, and it remains to be seen how the new center-back partnership works. On the flanks figure to be senior Colleen Dougherty and freshman Miriam Rhinehart. Dougherty is another who’s a threat offensively, with six assists on the season, including on the goal against Maryland on Sunday. Rhinehart’s less experienced, with just ten starts on the season but already looks promising and figures to be a key part of OSU’s defense in the future with so many graduating after this year.
Midfielders – Losing DeLozier on this line is less a loss of personnel as much as it is a loss of potential balance in the middle of the park. None of the players likely to be starting in the midfield are really defensive specialists, meaning this is a potential area of trouble with Teresa Noyola roaming through. Much of Stanford’s attention will likely be drawn towards German senior Annika Niemeier who missed all of last season and big chunks of this season through injury. Finally getting healthy for the postseason, Niemeier has shined brightly in the NCAA Tournament, with all three game winning goals for the Cowgirls and could be the X-Factor for OSU in a potential upset. Senior Kyndall Treadwell isn’t quite a prolific scorer but has made her goals count, with six of her eight over the past two years going down as match winners. Treadwell’s experience as a senior will also be vital playing on the road in a hostile, high-pressure environment. Sophomore Kristen Kelley is the youngest of the likely starters, and like the others, is a threat in front of goal. All three of Kelley’s goals this season have gone down as match winning strikes, including the winner near the end of extra time against Texas in the Big XII Tournament. Collectively, this group has a lot of potential to help spark the OSU offense. The question though is whether there’s enough balance here to help slow down the Stanford midfield.
Forwards – For the Cowgirls, the attack will likely focus upon senior Krista Lopez. Lopez was a revelation last season after two years of mostly being a reserve for the Cowgirls, the Texas native scoring fifteen goals. It’s been a harder go of it this year with the added attention from opposing defenses, with just eight goals to her name, four of those coming in one match early in the year against UALR. Lopez hasn’t scored since October 7, a span of ten matches. She still has been active though, tabling the match winning assist against Illinois on Friday and putting up six shots last Sunday against Maryland. Junior Megan Marchesano also enjoyed a breakout season offensively last year with eight goals but has generally been more valued for her playmaking ability up front this year, leading the team with ten assists. Marchesano also had an assist on the goal against Illinois last weekend and will be another key to unlocking the tough Stanford defense. Sophomore Taylor Mathews has the look of a budding star for OSU, having more than doubled her goals and assists from her rookie season with nine and seven respectively. While Mathews may have padded those stats with two goals and three assists against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, she also showed her ability to come through in the clutch with game winners against Texas Tech to clinch the league title and Oklahoma in the first round of the Big XII Tournament. All three likely starters are talented, but it remains to be seen if they’ve got that special something to help them break through a stout Cardinal defense.
Reserves – A group that was pretty thin as is before the loss of Michalowski grows that much thinner with the loss of the center-back. Any scoring threat off the bench is likely to come from senior Sarah Brown, who started fourteen matches for the Cowgirls this season. Brown did tally five goals and seven assists but is very streaky, scoring in three straight league games at one point but only once since the end of September. The other two likeliest subs are much less experienced. Freshman Hayley McKinney provides some fresh legs in defense and could be needed given the amount of pressure OSU is likely to face on Friday. Fellow rookie Abbey Akin provides a little bit more punch going forward, having scored against both Kansas and Missouri in league play, the latter a match winning goal.
Just how much of a psychological effect is the loss of Michalowski going to have on this OSU team? While it’s true that the Cowgirls did have a game to get used to being without one of their best defensive players, it still has to be a bit jarring for such a gelled unit to be without the junior. While you’d think Stanford would be facing more pressure as favorites for the national title, don’t discount the pressure OSU comes into this match with. The Cowgirls’ likely know that their window for a national title closes after this season with a whole lot of seniors graduating and that this could be their best chance at a College Cup for a while. It’s been an emotionally draining week both on and off the pitch for this Oklahoma State program who’ve done well to reach this point in convincing fashion. How much they have left in the tank at this point is certainly a pressing question.
Paul Ratcliffe enters the later stages of the 2011 NCAA Tournament with a point to prove after coming in for criticism for tactics after two national title match failures against North Carolina and Notre Dame. The longtime boss of the Card though has Stanford playing some electric stuff, and it’s hard to argue with their results this season as they’ve drowned opponents in a flood of goals while keeping them at bay with a unyielding defense. But Ratcliffe also knows that anything less than the ultimate prize with such a talented team this year will be viewed as a major disappointment.
Oklahoma State Colin Carmichael has been with the Cowgirls program from the very beginning, first as Karen Hancock’s right hand man before switching roles with the program matriarch. Carmichael has helped build the Oklahoma State program into one of the region’s top powers, taking home no shortage of Big XII silverware while bringing in some eclectic and exciting talent to thrill Cowgirl supporters. But it’s the last step for OSU that’s proven elusive so far, as the Cowgirls were tamed rather easily by Notre Dame at this stage last year. Carmichael will be eager to show his side’s learned from that defeat, hoping to reach the program’s first College Cup in the process.
Famous Last Words
Oklahoma State faced an uphill task with Michalowski healthy and in the lineup. Without her? It’s a whole lot harder to say the least. Their best chance is to hope that Mercado can shut down Taylor and that the rest of the defense can keep the rest of Stanford’s attacking options at bay. The biggest danger could be from Noyola, who may have the run of the land against what looks like a very attacking midfield lineup with DeLozier likely to drop into defense again. Even if OSU’s defense can hold strong, it’s not certain that their offense will be able to pry open Stanford’s defense. The Cowgirls have a lot of very good attackers but no real great ones, and it might take greatness to put one past this Stanford team. It may well be a case of first goal wins. OSU has been remarkably effective guarding one goal leads but may not have the firepower to come back from behind themselves. You’d think the home side are comfortable favorites, but then again, a player like Franch in goal could turn the tide by herself given her talent and form, making this likely to be another tight one for both teams.