Mercado
OSU

STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma State advanced to its second consecutive third-round appearance and set a school record for wins with a 1-0 victory against Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship Friday night at the Cowgirl Soccer Complex.

Annika Niemeier’s goal in the 25th minute lifted the second-seeded Cowgirls to the win as they improved to 21-1-2 on the season. Coach Colin Carmichael’s squad will now host Maryland at 1 p.m. Sunday looking to advance to the national quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.

On an emotional day for OSU following the deaths of Cowgirl women’s basketball coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna in a plane crash on Thursday, the Cowgirls were able to record their NCAA-leading 17th shutout of the season and earn their 10th 1-0 win of the year.

“It was always going to be tough, and given everything that happened today it was very difficult for the girls to focus and be motivated like we normally would,” Carmichael said. “But our team showed again what kind of courage they have, what kind of desire they have and how tough they can be to come out and play with the intensity they did.

“Illinois is a great team. It was a very, very close game and certainly could have gone both ways. We’re just thankful at this stage to advance to Sunday to face Maryland.”

OSU All-American defender Melinda Mercado, who played basketball for Budke’s Cowgirls as a freshman during the 2008-09 season, added that playing the game was not easy, but a pre-game speech from OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder helped the team focus.

“Early in the day when we all found out [about the crash] it was very difficult. You put the game in the back of your mind, and that’s what you’re thinking about at the moment,” Mercado said. “But I think once we got in the locker room and Coach [Mike] Holder came and talked to us, we just really focused in. I think his speech really got to us, about how they would want us to be focused and come out with a ‘W.’

“Once the game rolled around we were more focused, but we were definitely grieving with the rest of Stillwater earlier.”

Illinois (17-5-2) just missed on several scoring opportunities early in Friday’s match. Just over five minutes in, a shot by Marissa Mykines deflected off the crossbar, and at the 10:44 mark, OSU goalie AD Franch made a full-extension diving save on a blast by Vanessa DiBernardo to keep the Illini off the scoreboard.

Franch matched a season high with seven saves en route to her 11th shutout of the season, which tied the OSU single-season record that she set as a freshman in 2009.

OSU’s record-setting goalie said coach Budke and coach Serna were on her mind throughout the contest.

“Deep down, there’s that belief that they’re right there with us, and that’s how I felt tonight,” Franch said. “Every save I made, I just felt like there was someone right there with me. That helped us out.”

OSU would tally the only score it would need at the 24:36 mark. Krista Lopez beat a defender near the end line and sent a pass to Megan Marchesano, who flicked the ball to Niemeier in front of the net. Niemeier then delivered her third goal of the season past Steph Panozzo.

Both teams would have several scoring opportunities throughout the rest of the match, but neither could find the back of the net. Illinois outshot the Cowgirls by a 17-13 margin with each keeper recording seven saves.

The Cowgirls would withstand a furious offensive attack over the game’s final 10 minutes as Illinois controlled the ball and the scoring chances but were unable to capitalize against the stingy OSU defense.

“[Illinois] was good – they put some nice shots on frame, and it was a great win to come out of it,” Franch said. “It’s always difficult when a team is coming down blazing because they have nothing to lose – push ’em up and go at ’em.

“But we hung in there and found a way to stick it out. That’s the only thing we can ask for, and hopefully that will continue.”