SAN JOSE, California - The 2019 Women’s College Cup kicks off from Avaya Stadium on Friday evening at 4 p.m. (PT) with the opening semifinal between Washington State and North Carolina. Pac-12 giants Stanford and UCLA meet in the second game of the night.
On Thursday, the four teams met with the media for a press conference to discuss the envious position of being able to play soccer in December.
Everything happens for a reason for Washington State, and the players have come to appreciate that this season. Graduate student goalkeeper Ella Dederick hit a low last season when she suffered a season-ending injury early in what appeared to be her final collegiate campaign.
“With it being my senior season and having the injury I had, I was taken back and I didn’t understand what was happening to me at that point,” Dederick said during Thursday’s press conference at Avaya Stadium. “As this year went on, it became more apparent to me that everything happened for a reason. If I didn’t get hurt, I wouldn’t be at the College Cup this season. It means a lot. It means so much to me that I can be a part of this and help my team make history. I feel really blessed that we’re in this position.”
In February of 2019, NCAA awarded Dederick her sixth season of eligibility. She’s taken advantage of the opportunity. The Camarillo, California-native recorded nine shutouts heading into the College Cup including the last two victories over West Virginia and South Carolina. Her teammates have noticed the determination in her to make sure this season does not end prematurely.
“Last year when she went down, all of us were in shock,” WSU star forward Morgan Weaver said about Dederick. “We didn’t know what was going on. Rachel [Johnson] did an amazing job coming in. Now, Ella is back. You can see it in her eyes. She is going to give us everything she can. There is nothing stopping her.”
Washington State head coach Todd Shulenberger noticed the shift in mentality from this team compared to the previous teams after the win over West Virginia in the Third Round.
“This team and this locker room is pretty unique,” Shulenberger said. “You guys don’t get to see that, but what we get to see it. These young, mature ladies are now seniors. They’ve taken a hold of this group. This started three years ago when we went east. We played Florida in the third round, we lost with one minute to go [in double overtime] to advance to the Elite Eight. But during the day [prior to the loss to Florida] I heard the girls asking, ‘Can we go home before we come back?’ They wanted to go home. I knew something wasn’t right. This year, we beat West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. The girls came over and said we’re going right to South Carolina, right coach. So you know that the mentality is different. They’ve grown up a lot.”
Part of that mentality change is the cohesion among the upperclassmen on the roster. Weaver and Dederick, the two players that program selected to speak during the press conference on Thursday, were roommates early in their college careers. The two players who play on opposite ends of the pitch bring the whole group together.
“It’s really awesome,” Dederick said. “When Morgan was a freshman, we were roommates. We became pretty close. It’s pretty awesome to watch her grow up. It’s unbelievable what we are doing out there. It is amazing. I am so proud of the team. I’ve been here six years so I’ve seen every single player come in and grow as a person. I’ve also grown. I’ve had some challenging games this postseason play, but a lot of them the team has taken care of them up top.”
This is the first College Cup appearance for Washington State, and they are the proverbial underdogs. The Cougars are the only unseeded team left in the competition, and have been the underdog in every game of the tournament since the Second Round upset over Virginia.
They don’t mind opponents and fans overlooking them. In fact, Weaver almost wears the moniker as a point of pride.
“I love it,” Weaver said. “I like being the underdog.”
“We can use being the underdog for two more games, but it probably won’t work next year,” Shulenberger added.
There is no more familiar face to the Women’s College Cup than North Carolina. It’s easier to list the amount of College Cups UNC has missed rather name all of the appearances (It’s nine. UNC has only missed the College Cup nine times). Friday’s matchup against Washington State is very much David vs. Goliath in terms of college soccer history. The Washington State Cougars are making their first appearance at the College Cup, and UNC is the most decorated program in the history of women’s college soccer.
However, Dorrance has the utmost respect for the program that Todd Shulenberger has built in Pullman, Washington.
“He’s done a wonderful job,” Dorrance said when asked about Shulenberger. “We watched his team play several times obviously because they were in a bracket with Virginia, and obviously Virginia is a conference rival. To see how they played effectively against one of the best teams on the East Coast, a team that honestly that was ranked No. 1 for maybe two thirds of last fall. To have his team come into their home and win is an absolutely remarkable achievement. And then to keep winning. They basically blew up that entire bracket. For them to do that is to his credit, his staff’s credit and his kids.”
Dorrance also saw some similarities between the Washington State style of play and his group. The Cougars are known for their relentless pursuit defensively and their knack for catching teams on the counter.
“They are outstanding, and they hunt,” Dorrance said. “We aren’t going to be comfortable playing the ball out of the back. These are hunters, and we watched them hunt. Also when Washington State gets the ball, they go to goal. They don’t pass the ball around the back for half an hour just to pump up their possession statistics. They understand how the game is played. And the way the game is played is you go forward and you stuff the ball in the back of the net, and they’re very good at it.”
Even though this appears to be business as usual for North Carolina. There is a competitive edge to this year’s team. They lost in last year’s final to Florida State, and are looking to capture the first National Championship for the squad since 2012.
UNC also suffered a considerable setback in the quarterfinal win over USC when Emily Fox went down with a knee injury.
“Emily’s obviously a great player; she’s had a great year,” Taylor Otto said about Fox. “We’re devastated that that happened, but she’s a big reason why we’re here. She’s a big reason why we came back against USC, so it would be wrong for us not to play for her and it would be wrong for us not to come out here and win a championship for her.”
The depth of North Carolina will be on full display on Friday night as they plug in for Fox and try to claim a spot in the National Championship with a win over the Cougars.
Stanford enters the College Cup as the hometown team. Avaya Stadium is a 17-mile drive from Stanford’s home stadium. A number of players on the Stanford roster hail from Northern California as well.
“It’s really exciting,” Stanford defender Naomi Girma said about playing in front of the home crowd. “I think even though it’s at home, the most important thing is the College Cup and we’re not really focused on being super close. It’s really cool that we have our family and friends coming out to support, though.”
While North Carolina is the program of historical greatness, Stanford is arguably in the midst of a dynasty. Cardinal defender Samantha Hiatt is playing in her third consecutive College Cup this weekend. Stanford won the crown in 2017 and lost in the semifinals last season.
“Every season, I think, brings something new and going to three College Cups, each has felt different and it’s with a different team,” Hiatt said. “I think I just want to prepare the same way every time. Be as focused and prepared as possible, and also just enjoy the moment with my teammates.”
Stanford is not the only Pac-12 program in the midst of a hot streak. UCLA and USC have both won the National Championship in the past decade (2013 and 2016, respectively). This year’s College Cup features three teams from the conference.
“I think it’s been an extraordinary year for the Pac-12,” Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “When you can get three teams into the College Cup, it’s amazing. I think we’ve been tested against some really difficult opponents. Hopefully that’s prepared us for this opportunity, but the College Cup, it’s a whole new game. There’s a lot on the line, so we have to be ready to play and do our best.”
Stanford was tested in conference play, but the Cardinal still accumulated a perfect record despite the weekly challenges.
“The Pac-12 is a great conference and I think every game we play in the Pac-12 teaches us something and let’s us learn from it,” Hiatt said. “I think that the Pac-12, like (head coach) Paul (Ratcliffe) said, had a really great year, and knowing that we did well in Pac-12s can give us confidence going forward, but at the same time that’s in the past and each new game we just want to focus on that game, because it really is what we did in the past doesn’t matter as much as what we do in those 90 minutes.”
Hiatt’s head coach shares that same sentiment about not dwelling too much on the success of yesterday.
“I don’t think there’s one specific game, I think the entire season I’ve been really proud of this team,” Ratcliffe said when asked about a defining game from this season to exemplify the Stanford style of play. “I think they’ve played really attractive, attacking soccer. I think the group has been very cohesive, scored a ton of goals, they’ve shared the ball, it’s been from all different angles, so I’ve been really proud of the squad the entire season, and I’m excited that they get to showcase their skills in front of a lot of people at the College Cup.”
“I think the takeaway for me from that [previous] game [against UCLA] is that both Catarina and (UCLA’s) Jessie (Fleming) are outstanding players and to see them battle against each other was really phenomenal and entertaining,” Ratcliffe said. “The entertainment value was very high, and I expect that again tomorrow. I think it’s going to be a great game. They’re two of the best midfielders in the whole country, and then the supporting casts for both teams is very strong, too. The takeaway for me is just that it’s going to be a really phenomenal game. It’s hard to take and learn too much specific about it because they’re both great players and if they match up with each other it’ll be an epic battle.”
It’s a familiar foe for UCLA on Friday. The rematch against Stanford awaits the Bruins in the nightcap from Avaya Stadium.
Amanda Cromwell’s group is riding high after a 4-0 victory over the defending National Champions Florida State in the Quarterfinals.
“We’re excited to be here. College Cup on the West Coast we’re excited about, especially in California and the stadium, it’s my first time here at Avaya Stadium,” Cromwell said. “Love the atmosphere and can’t wait for the stadium, with the fans and playing, it’s going to be a fantastic game on Friday with a well-known adversary and I’m excited that there’s three Pac-12 teams here and almost a fourth – we were very close. Just excited for the culmination of the season, I think we’re peaking at the right time and playing some fantastic soccer, seen last week against Florida State, going in there and getting that 4-nil win at a place that’s very hard to win in the postseason. I think we’re on the right track and excited for these seniors to lead us home tomorrow.”
Kaiya McCullough and Teagan Micah are two of the eight seniors on the roster. They both played in the National Championship game two years ago, a 2-3 loss to the Cardinal. They’ve learned from that game and the game earlier this season, a 0-1 loss for the Bruins.
“We’ve looked at film and I think our team has improved immensely from that game,” Micah said about the earlier loss to Stanford. “We’re a different team, especially at defense. We’re a lot tighter and winning balls that we weren’t really doing early on in the season, so for us I have all confidence in my back line, like Kaiya, all the girls were huge against Florida State, they had no answer to us. For me, it’s us just playing our own game, winning those individual battles across the park and I think we’ll do well against Stanford.”
“It was a great game, like you said it really could’ve gone either way,” McCullough echoed those sentiments about this season’s 0-1 loss to Stanford. “From there, like Teagan said, we have improved immensely as a team and we are a lot tighter and our back line especially, I think we’ve grown and gotten more comfortable with each other, and I think across the field our defense has become a lot tighter from the forward line all the way down to our goalkeeper. I think it’ll be a great battle for us and it’ll be a great test for us to see our relationships on the field. I think that trust we have among one another that we’ve built all season is really gonna help push us through this game.”
Part of the improvement for UCLA has been freshman Mia Fishel’s growth into a key contributor for the squad.
“She’s had some rookie moments, whether it’s trusting herself, trusting her teammates or just having a feel for what certain players like and what kind of runs they make,” Cromwell said about what she’s seen in Fishel’s development over the course of the season. “It’s really playing to each other’s strengths. She’s a student of the game – wise and mature beyond her years. She’s come in, as much as any other player, on her own and been doing more video. She’s really just soaked it up, just wanting to learn and watch. If you look at her movements and wanting to combine with other players, it’s quite different even than from that last Stanford game. And her ability to hold onto the ball and create shots for herself and others, she’s at a whole other level right now.”
Fishel is one of the X-Factors for UCLA. Another one is Jessie Fleming. The all-everything midfielder is looking to cap her senior campaign with a National Championship.
“It’s two heavyweight fighters going after it, right?” Cromwell said about the match-up between Catarina Macario and Jessie Fleming. “You’ve gotta take each other’s blows and hope your blow hits the hardest. If you watch that second half of that game, it really was a tale of two halves, they had the first half and I think we had the second half, and Jessie (Fleming) ran the show. I mean, she absolutely – and you could see between their midfielders chasing her around, if we can get Catarina (Macario) worried about defending Jess we’re gonna be in a good spot.”