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A model of consistency: Washington State soccer program continues its ascent into Elite Eight

Nov. 27, 2019 Updated Wed., Nov. 27, 2019 at 4:22 p.m.

Washington State’s Bridget Rieken heads the ball against Montana on Aug. 30, 2019, at Lower Soccer Field in Pullman. (Dean Hare / WSU Athletics)
Washington State’s Bridget Rieken heads the ball against Montana on Aug. 30, 2019, at Lower Soccer Field in Pullman. (Dean Hare / WSU Athletics)

Annual relevance in the Pac-12 Conference is an arduous pursuit for many of Washington State’s athletic programs. The reasons are obvious.

Geographic isolation, chilly temperatures and Pullman’s relative lack of amenities compared to the Cougars’ sunnier, big-city peers are the most glaring.

Washington State has long embraced this milieu, making its best Power 5 campaigns even more special for the crimson-clad contingent.

But since the Washington State women’s soccer team’s inception in 1989, the Cougars have rarely been a doormat.

Twenty-three of Washington State’s 31 seasons have resulted in a winning record.

In what’s widely believed to be the best top-to-bottom conference in college soccer, the Cougars have earned eight NCAA Tournament berths over the past nine seasons.

The 2019 edition of head coach Todd Shulenberger’s team is the best one yet.

WSU (15-6-1) is a win away from the College Cup Final Four, facing second-seeded South Carolina (19-1-3) in the national quarterfinals on Friday at 3 p.m. on the Gamecocks’ home pitch in Columbia, South Carolina.

“We have a point to prove,” said Shulenberger, who has led the Cougars to four NCAA Tournaments in his five seasons.

This is among WSU’s most storied tournament runs in any sport, including the Cougars’ men’s basketball (1941) and baseball (1950) teams’ runs to the NCAA title games and volleyball’s multiple Elite Eight appearances.

A conference-record four Pac-12 teams comprise the 2019 NCAA quarterfinal field, including top-seeded Stanford, USC, UCLA and the Cougars.

WSU, which finished sixth in the Pac-12 during the regular season, has since clipped Memphis (1-0), top-seeded Virginia (3-2) and West Virginia (3-0) in NCAA tournament play.

It took the Cougars five seasons of existence to reach their first NCAA tournament in 1994, a foundation set by the program’s all-time leader in career goals (83) and points (177), WSU Hall of Famer Kim Lynass.

Lynass (1990) and Micaela Castain (2013) are the only players in program history to win Pac-12 Player of the Year.

These days, WSU is littered with All-Pac-12 talent.

The offense is led by the program’s second all-time leading scorer in Morgan Weaver (14 goals in 2019), a talented Stanford graduate transfer in Averie Collins (17 points), Makamae Gomera-Stevens (15 points), Elyse Bennett (15 points) and Brianna Alger (10 assists).

Ella Dederick has been a wall at goal this season with 68 saves and 22 goals allowed.

Shulenberger came to Pullman in 2015 via Texas Tech, where he was an associate head coach. He was also an assistant at Missouri and Clemson.

When he replaced Keidane McAlpine, who left WSU for the same job at USC, his intention was to make his position a destination job and help the Cougars take the next step.

The Cougars reached the third round for the first time in his third year.

Other former WSU head coaches left the Palouse for warmer climates after successful runs, including Lisa Fraser (Arizona), Dan Tobias (Arizona), Matt Potter (Oklahoma) and McAlpine, whose Trojans could potentially face the Cougars in the Final Four if both teams win this weekend.

Shulenberger said his team embraces the cold and lunch-pail approach most great WSU teams have had to succeed.

“We recruit the type of the girls who want to work hard,” he said. “They work hard as a group. They have that mentality.”

It works for defenders like Coeur d’Alene product and true freshman Bridget Rieken.

Rieken, a former Lake City High star, is already a significant contributor on one of the country’s top teams.

Like Collins, a former high school star in Bozeman, Rieken was a cut above her small state’s competition, playing on traveling club teams to get the attention of Division I college coaches.

She liked what she saw in Washington State, which has a geographically diverse roster with players from Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and Canada.

“We all take pride in being the Pullman school,” Rieken said. “And we recruit from all over, so coming from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, you’re the underdog. You’re looked at lower, but we’ve shown we can play with anyone.”

A year ago, Rieken was going up against the likes of Post Falls and Lewiston. Now she’s a game away from the grandest stage in college soccer.

“I knew this team was going places, and that’s why I committed,” Rieken said. “It hasn’t fully hit me yet that we’ve made it this far. Our determination to win has gotten us here.”

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