WSU opens NCAAs with Illinois in Pullman

It’s fifth postseason bid for Cougars in six years

PULLMAN – There was never a doubt that the Washington State women’s soccer team would play in the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship.

While selection shows can be stressful for the so-called bubble teams on the fringes of postseason play, the Cougars made Monday’s announcement an event, a reward for the late-season surge that effectively guaranteed a tournament bid.

As the televised bracket-unveiling wrapped up, it was no surprise to anyone in the room to see the Cougars among the teams listed. Still, the announcement that WSU (14-3-3, 7-3-1 Pac-12) will play host to Illinois (10-8-2, 5-5-1 Big Ten) on Saturday was cause enough to celebrate for the Cougars, who haven’t played an NCAA tournament game at home since 2000.

“Having it here in Pullman is going to be that much better for us,” goalkeeper Gurveen Clair said. “The home crowd – the weather’s usually on our side when it comes to being used to it – and just being able to get the fans out will be amazing. Hopefully, people come down from Spokane, some Idaho people come out and support (us).”

In the biggest room of Pullman’s Paradise Creek Brewery, the Cougars basked in the company of family, friends and school administrators, all eager to share the moment with the team that set the school record for wins.

Clair’s 14 victories this season are a school record, as are her conference-leading 12 shutouts. Senior Micaela Castain directed the Cougars’ offensive attack, leading the Pac-12 in goals and assists with 11 of each.

The Cougars, who finished second in the Pac-12, will play in their eighth postseason, and fifth in the past six years. Last season the team lost a shootout against fourth-seeded Portland on the road. But from that disappointing finish came the foundation for WSU’s record-setting season.

“We started in January preparing for this moment and putting ourselves in position to get back here,” coach Keidane McAlpine said. “And now we’ve got a chance to rectify last year and hopefully take it further and make some history.”

There was only a brief hiccup for the Cougars, a two-game losing streak in conference. But rather than derail WSU’s season, the losses unified the Cougars, who painted their nails black, wore special wristbands, and didn’t lose another game.

“I think we had a little lull in the season with the Utah and Oregon State games,” McAlpine said. “We had a little meeting after that, refocused, found a new mantra for the last five games – that was ‘finish five strong.’ ”

That ethos clearly worked for WSU as it won its final five games while giving up just a single goal and beating No. 6 Stanford and No. 21 Cal in Pullman. If the Cougars can maintain that strong play there’s no telling where their historic season will finish.

But they’ll need a new mantra.

• Whitworth (12-3-3), which finished second in the Northwest Conference, did not receive a bid to the NCAA Division III men’s soccer tournament.

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