By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
For a second straight year the Oklahoma State women’s soccer team will be relying on underclassmen to propel the program and get the Cowgirls back to the postseason after ending a six-year streak of NCAA appearances.
Last year’s squad, which featured several freshman players up front, struggled to get the ball in the net with less than two goals per game — which led to four of the team’s six losses being decided by one goal.
It’s now time for those freshmen, such as Madison Mercado and Allie Stephenson, to rise to the occasion, especially with last year’s leading goal scorer, Megan Marchesano, having graduated. Mercado is OSU’s top returning goal scorer from a year ago, with only four goals. Stephenson returns the second-most points (9) with two goals and five assists.
“It’s probably going to be the most important thing that will dictate how our season goes. These kids know that they’ve been through our system for a year and what it takes to compete at a high level, they have to make the jump,” OSU coach Colin Carmichael said. “If they don’t, we’re going to be that team that’s pretty good again, but not able to get over the hump. If they can make that jump, we have a chance to be really good.”
Hopefully to help the cause for the Cowgirls will be the healthy return of Kristen Kelley. The senior from Bishop Kelley scored three goals last season before missing the final five games with a foot injury.
Oklahoma State went 1-2-2 in those contests without Kelley.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that when Kristen got hurt our season started to go a little down hill a little bit last fall,” Carmichael said. “She was just so important to our team. She brings leadership, she’s vocal, she’s a very good soccer player.
“She just drives the team forward and when we lost that last fall, I think in years past we could have overcome that, but with so many young players they didn’t know what to do. So adding Kristen back in for this year, assuming she stays healthy, she’s one of the best players in our conference.”
As a sophomore, Kelley started in 25 games for a Cowgirl squad that reached the NCAA quarterfinals. All three of her goals that year were game winners.
Even after being sidelined for the stretch of last season, Kelley, who is one of just two seniors on the squad, still has the respect of the Big 12 Conference coaches. The midfielder was the only Cowgirl to earn a spot on the Preseason All-Big 12 Team as voted on by the league’s coaches.
“I was very honored that I would be considered because I know once you are out, it’s hard to get back — people kind of forget and you drop off their radar,” Kelley said. “So it’s a very good feeling to know that people still recognize that I can contribute to the team.”
But just like last season, Carmichael foresees several incoming freshman playing big minutes for the Cowgirls — largely out of necessity due to graduated players.
OSU brought in 10 players in the freshman class, with highly recruited Oklahoma natives Krissi Killion, a forward from Broken Arrow, and Courtney Dike, a forward from Edmond North.
“From what I’ve seen so far in practice, I’ve been extremely impressed with all of the freshmen,” Kelley said. “They are really willing to put in the effort in order to see the results. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
Oklahoma State will travel to Tulsa on Saturday for an exhibition game against Oral Roberts at 7 p.m. The Cowgirls will open the regular season on the road with a contest at Tennessee-Martin on Aug. 23.