For the third year in a row, it was déjà vu all over again for the Washington State University women’s soccer team Saturday night as the Cougars – hosting yet-another first-round NCAA tournament game on home soil – lost a 1-0 heartbreaker deep in overtime.
This year, it was the Wildcats of Northwestern University who stopped WSU’s postseason run with a scrappy goal in the 104th minute.
“I honestly thought it was going to go down to (penalty kicks),” said Todd Shulenberger, WSU’s first-year head coach.
“But credit to Northwestern,” he continued in a gloomy post-game interview. “They’re a good team. They were organized and we let one slip at the end.”
Playing with power and passion, WSU dominated possession and all of the offensive statistics throughout the first 90 minutes. The Cougars laid siege to the Wildcats’ goal and launched blistering 12 shots, four of which were on target. By contrast, Northwestern mustered only six shooting opportunities in regulation time, and only two of those were goal bound.
It was a night for big players to play big, and the Cougars rose to the challenge.
Junior Kaitlyn Johnson was a constant attacking menace, full of running, full of guile, harrying defenders into mistakes, regaining the ball, and inciting fresh attacks. Kara Wegner, a senior, rode tackle after tackle and launched a succession of stinging drives at the Northwestern goal. Beau Bremer, another senior playing what turned out to be her final game for WSU, was involved in a nasty clash of heads in the 80th minute and wound up collecting several stitches over her right eye.
Northwestern started brightly and enjoyed most of the possession during the opening 10 minutes until the white-clad Cougars stamped their authority on the game. As the teams warmed to their task, it was clear that Northwestern was content to sit deep, get players behind the ball, soak up the pressure, and then break out on quick counter-offensive raids. Well-organized and resolute, the Wildcats kept it simple and focused on kept things tidy at the back.
WSU nearly broke the deadlock in the 17th minute when Johnson took a ball on her chest, swiveled, and fired a hard drive that Northwestern’s keeper could only parry. The ensuing corner kick devolved into a goalmouth scramble and a WSU player nearly headed in the opening goal – only for it to be cleared off the line by a Wildcat defender.
Four minutes later, Johnson’s combative nature carried her past two defenders before she was brought down in the penalty area. The crowd bayed for a penalty kick, but the referee – who didn’t show a card all night – waved play on.
As the first half wore on, WSU was rampant. In the 41st minute, Maddy Haro shimmied past several defenders and launched a stinging shot that beat the Northwestern keeper and, ultimately, the goalpost.
The second half picked up where the first half left off, with WSU’s players running for each other, passing unselfishly, spreading play, and putting the Wildcats under pressure.
Northwestern came into the game as the second half wore on, stringing passes together, retaining possession, and crafting a few shooting opportunities of their own.
The Cougars eventually wrested control away from Northwestern and Johnson nearly broke the deadlock with a wicked, goal-bound shot in the 63rd minute – only for it to be headed over the bar by a Northwestern defender.
Wegner nearly won it for WSU with four minutes left in regulation, but her shot – straight as a laser beam – whistled inches over the crossbar. As the clock wound down, WSU’s Kailiana Johnson emerged as a key offensive conspirator, but she was unable to conjure a winner.
The Wildcats kept their heads above water and pushed the game into overtime. Both sides had their chances in the first period and then, four minutes into the second period, Northwestern’s Michelle Manning rolled her marker, drew WSU keeper Ella Dederick, and slotted home the game’s only goal against the run of play.
The win sends the Wildcats into a second-round NCAA contest against West Virginia. For the Cougars, their third straight first-round playoff loss was hard to swallow.
“We worked so hard,” a visibly distraught Bremer said after the game,” and it hurts so much to have it taken away from us.”
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