Seven of the eight teams remaining in the NCAA women’s soccer tournament are top- or second-seeded powerhouses.
Then there’s Washington State.
The Cougars continue their historic tourney run against fifth-ranked and second-seeded South Carolina (19-1-3) at 3 p.m. today at Stone Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
“There’s something in this locker room right now that’s clicking,” WSU coach Todd Shulenberger said.
After topping two-loss Memphis in the first round, WSU (15-6-1) upset top-seeded and one-loss Virginia 3-2 on Nov. 22, then rumbled past West Virginia 3-0 on Sunday to advance to its first-ever Elite Eight.
Four Cougars scored goals last weekend, led by three from star forward Morgan Weaver. Also scoring were Averie Collins, MacKenzie Frimpong-Ellertson and Makamae Gomera-Stevens.
On the season, 11 Cougars have scored and nine have tallied game-winners.
“It’s great because now our scouting report is bigger for when teams look at us,” Shulenberger said. “It’s not just the Morgan Weaver show. We’ve got a ton of players in there.”
Gomera-Stevens’ breakout performance has been the biggest boost for the Cougs in the postseason. The junior from Kapolei, Hawaii, scored the lone goal against Memphis, the game-winner vs. West Virginia and assisted on the first score against Virginia.
“Probably the sneakiest, most underrated, gifted player is Makame Gomera-Stevens,” Shulenberger said. “She’s catching the national spotlight now not only with us as a team, but as an individual.”
The Cougs also are stout on defense with two shutouts this postseason and nine on the season. All-Pac-12 goalkeeper Ella Dederick, WSU’s all-time wins leader, has 14 saves this postseason, including seven against Virginia.
WSU’s run has been years in the making. The Cougars advanced to their first Sweet 16 in 2017 and have qualified for the NCAA tournament 10 times since 2008.
The experience is plentiful. Collins, a graduate transfer, owns a national championship with Stanford. And the Cougar freshmen, sophomores and juniors have qualified for the tourney every season.
That experience no doubt has served the Cougars well playing in hostile environments on the East Coast.
“They’re hungry and they don’t want to exit this thing yet,” Shulenberger said.
Against the Gamecocks, the Cougs will try to solve one of the toughest defenses in the country. South Carolina has allowed more than one goal only once in 23 games and owns 16 shutouts, including three in the NCAA tournament.
The Gamecocks are led by goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski, who has 50 career shutouts, good for third-best in NCAA history.
“They don’t score a lot of goals, but they haven’t been scored on a lot either,” Shulenberger said. “Here’s the bottom line: If we can get out on them early, or get one, or get another, are they going to be able to handle that? Because the Cougs are coming.
“If they get rattled, we’ll see what they’re made of.”
Shulenberger said the rugged Pac-12 schedule has prepared WSU for the gauntlet that is the NCAA tournament.
The toughest conference in the country this year, the Pac-12 has four of the eight teams remaining. Stanford, UCLA and USC also are still alive.
“The girls have put in the work this year,” Shulenberger said. “Our conference has obviously prepared us for this, and we’re healthy, we’re confident and we’re looking forward to South Carolina.”
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @StephanSports.