Motivation comes in all forms. For the Washington State women’s soccer team, it was a full suitcase.
Last week, after the Cougars drew a first-round NCAA Tournament match at Central Florida, coach Todd Shulenberger dangled a carrot in front of his players.
“He told us to pack for the week,” WSU midfielder Maegan O’Neill said. “He said he had a good feeling about our chances.”
Sure enough, the Cougars got past the Knights in Orlando, Florida. Three days later, they’re up the road in Gainesville, preparing in 75-degree weather for Friday’s second-round match against Tennessee.
Informed that daytime highs in Pullman are in the mid-40s, forward Morgan Weaver could only react with a sympathetic, “Uuh.”
The warm feelings also come from WSU’s hard-earned 1-0 win at UCF, a match that Shulenberger called a great confidence booster.
For O’Neill, a junior from Spokane, self-confidence has soared this year. Moved from center back to holding midfielder, the former Ferris High School star has become one of Shulenberger’s key players.
Like most of the Cougars, O’Neill dug a little deeper in the offseason after WSU failed to make the postseason last year. Focusing on her fitness, she moved easily into her new role.
Wondering aloud why O’Neill didn’t win any Pac-12 honors this year, Shulenberger called her “one of the unsung heroes” in the conference.
“She’s a big-time player, great individual defender – she does it all,” Shulenberger said.
Until this year, O’Neill did everything but score. That changed on Oct. 1, when she had two goals off corner kicks in a 3-0 win over No. 24 Utah.
On Oct. 19, O’Neill provided the highlight moment of the season by tapping in a loose ball off another corner to give the Cougars a 1-0 win over second-ranked UCLA.
“That was exciting,” said O’Neill, who’s started all 20 matches this year.
By all accounts, her goal also was the difference in making the postseason.
With one postseason match under the belts, the Cougars (10-7-3) face a Tennessee team that features one of the most dangerous strikers in the country in Khadija Shaw.
The powerfully built, 5-foot-11 Shaw has 14 goals and five assists and is a “big-time player,” Shulenberger said.
Tennessee has scored 45 goals this season and given up 19.
The Volunteers are 16-5-1 overall, but lost three out of four before winning their NCAA opener at home against Murray State, 2-0.
Looking back on the UCF match – especially the second half – Shulenberger said the Cougars need to do a better job possessing the ball.
The winner will face South Florida or host Florida in a Sweet 16 match on Sunday.
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