-Stanford Holds Their Nerve
It was a situation ripe for a letdown for the national title favorites in Palo Alto on Friday night. Stanford had struggled to take the lead against a dogged Oklahoma State team despite dominating in the run of play and shot count for a little more than a half. The Card would gain the advantage shortly after the break through Kristy Zurmuhlen but would then experience a major shock as Sarah Brown brought the teams back on level terms after some rather lackadaisical defending with a lob over Emily Oliver from twenty-five yards out. It would’ve been easy for many teams to slump their shoulders after conceding such a goal and being back on level terms so late in the match after dominating proceedings for the most part. Then again, Stanford showed again on Friday why they aren’t most teams. Repelling renewed efforts from a newly confident Oklahoma State after their goal, Stanford would end up in extra time with the Cowgirls, a rarity for this Cardinal team. But coach Paul Ratcliffe made a proactive switch tactically to win the match in extra time, throwing Camille Levin forward to add attacking punch to the lineup. Levin wasn’t involved in Lindsay Taylor’s match winning goal, but the sentiment of the switch was the same, as Stanford went for the jugular from the kick-off right from the start of the extra frames and hit the jackpot just a few minutes into the first half of the extra period. The relentless drive to make it to Kennesaw was a resounding success. Now it’s just a matter of maintaining that relentlessness through Sunday afternoon to bring home the program’s first national title.
-OSU’s Fighting Spirit and The Future
Though Oklahoma State’s latest and likely best chance to make it to the College Cup went begging and OSU fell at the last hurdle to the Final Four for the second straight season, it’d be doing a disservice to the Cowgirls to not tip your hat at the effort on Friday. Coming into the Elite Eight, not one opponent who fell behind to Stanford in the course of a match had done so much as to even get back to level terms against the Card. Oklahoma State were certainly up against it after a half of being shelled and could have easily folded once Stanford took the lead in the early part of the second half. Instead, the goal seemed to serve as a wakeup call for the Cowgirls, who battled back with an equalizer and who were certainly in it through much of the rest of the second half. They’d fall in extra time, but the Big XII champs certainly gave a better account of themselves than most others who had come and fallen in Palo Alto had. The big question now is what the future will hold for these Cowgirls. The team gets ravaged by graduation which might put paid to their hopes of a College Cup appearance for a while. On the other hand, OSU does return Adrianna Franch and brings in a strong recruiting class, meaning anyone writing off these Cowgirls does so at their own peril.
-Franch’s Big Show
If Oklahoma State fans have one reason to be bullish about 2012, it’s that they still have one more year with Adrianna Franch minding goal for them. The senior-to-be came into 2011 with a steadily rising profile thanks to two years of strong performances for the Cowgirls in goal. Already thought of as one of 2013’s top prospects for a potential WPS Draft, Franch was also seen as a future contender for the USWNT in the eyes of some. With her junior year complete, it’s safe to say that Franch has certainly done her cause no harm this season with any number of eye-catching displays in OSU’s Big XII title winning campaign and run to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. Franch came up huge in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with some great saves against Illinois, stopped a penalty against Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen, and then saved one of her best performances for last against Stanford this past Friday. Franch made six saves on the night, keeping her side in the match in the first half as they faced a steady barrage of shots from the Cardinal. With Oklahoma State getting hit especially hard on defense through graduation this coming offseason, Franch may need to be bigger and better than ever if the Cowgirls are to make 2012 another trophy winning season.
Is it possible that people might be overlooking Tiffany McCarty in the race for the Hermann Trophy? While much of the attention has inevitably focused on the gaudy stats of Penn State’s Maya Hayes and/or the tremendous seasons of Stanford’s Lindsay Taylor and Teresa Noyola, McCarty’s been doing great things in Tallahassee. The Seminoles’ junior has recorded a point in nine of the last ten matches during FSU’s current winning streak, including one in the last six matches. During that ten game span, McCarty has six goals and five assists and has been a major reason why Florida State’s making the journey north to Kennesaw this weekend. Against Virginia, McCarty was again in irrepressible form, winning the penalty that Ines Jaurena converted in the first half before icing the game late with FSU’s third on a breakaway as Virginia had committed more and more players forward. The Seminole striker may not enter the College Cup with most of the headlines to her name, but if she can maintain her current electric form, she might just end up leaving Kennesaw with her hands on the big prize.
-Virginia’s Tactical Gamble
Virginia’s match with Florida State ended up with a lopsided outcome, but it didn’t have that appearance at the half. Or after a quarter of an hour for that matter either as the Cavs looked the more likely to score after a flurry of activity at the FSU end of the pitch. But once Tiffany McCarty was brought down in the area some ten minutes before the half, resulting in a FSU penalty, there was a massive swing of momentum for the home side who went into the break with a 1-0 lead. They would come out of the break facing a side that had shifted into a formation with three at the back after withdrawing Molly Menchel and throwing on Gloria Douglas. It was a risky move to be sure, and it didn’t really provide dividends in the end, as Virginia only forced Kelsey Wys into one save after the break and before Florida State scored their second goal of the match that all but killed the tie off. While the Cavs essentially waved the white flag for the formation switch after twenty minutes of the second half by bringing Menchel on for Douglas, one has to wonder if such a drastic switch of tactics when the club was only down by one goal at the half was really the best course of action. While both FSU goals in the second half came after Menchel had come back on, the offense may have been better served by staying the course in the 4-3-3 until the last quarter of an hour or so if the scored had still been 1-0.
-The Tide Turns
Oh, the difference a few months can make. Just a few months ago, Florida State looked like a team that was dead and buried as far as national title hopes were concerned after the Noles kept dropping match after match in the rough and tumble ACC. On most occasions, FSU wasn’t getting blown out by losing by narrow margins while hitting the frame of the goal a frustrating amount of times in the process. Epitomizing Florida State’s frustration was the extension of one of the more shocking streaks in college soccer, with FSU having never beaten the Cavs in the twenty times they had played each other. In the regular season, Virginia would take the lead three times in regulation, only to be pegged back each time before finally KO’ing FSU in extra time in a 4-3 win that was a devastating blow to the Noles at the time. At the half of the teams’ second meeting on the year in the ACC Tournament, it looked as if little had changed, with Virginia up 1-0 and outshooting FSU, 11-2. After half-time of that match, Florida State outscored Virginia, 5-0, in one hundred thirty-five minutes of action and most importantly, claimed victories in the second and third meetings between the two teams. Once a rivalry that was firmly in the grip of the Cavaliers, it now appears that the momentum has swung decidedly in the direction of Florida State. It’s just another reason the Noles can enter December with great optimism.
-Wake and Duke Take Care of Business
In a tournament where much hasn’t gone to plan for some of the nation’s elite, perhaps the script being followed perfectly and emphatically is news enough. That was certainly the case in both quarterfinal matches taking place in North Carolina on Friday night. Top seeded Duke and Wake Forest inevitably had little trouble coming out on top in the end, making the clock strike midnight for another pair of Cinderellas at the stage of the tournament where upset minded unseeded teams usually fall by the wayside. There was little drama to be seen at full-time though with both Wake Forest and Duke running out comfortable winners. The Demon Deacons may have been outshot on the stat sheet by the Golden Knights, but there was no confusing who the better side on the evening was as Wake clinically ripped apart UCF’s defense for three goals. The home side was up by a pair at the break and never really looked like letting their opponents back into the match after the intermission. Their ACC rivals left it a little later despite dominating the first half and hitting the bar through Kelly Cobb before the break. But Duke’s defense was also essentially erasing Long Beach State’s offense from the game and failed to give up a shot the entire match. Eventually, the Blue Devils’ pressure told, with Robbie Church’s side running out 2-0 winners. It says much about both Duke and Wake Forest that they were able to not just advance past UCF and Long Beach State and into the College Cup, but that they were able to do it so convincingly where so many others had failed this November.