Far travel doesn't deter Cowgirls in tourney
For the third year in a row, Oklahoma State opened the NCAA tournament far from its campus in Stillwater. Two years ago, the Cowgirls took a trip to Clemson for the first two rounds. Last year, they traveled to UCLA. This fall, despite being ranked No. 7 in the final regular-season top 25 poll, the Big 12 regular-season champions found themselves saddled with a No. 4 seed and a trip to New Jersey.
In each case, the trip to the tournament was the team's longest of the season.
And for the third year in a row, Oklahoma State came away with a first-round win after beating Fairfield 1-0 on a damp night in the Garden State.
"We don't get many favors from the committee when it comes to sending us [to the tournament]," Oklahoma State coach Colin Carmichael said with a rueful smile. "We understand that there are some rules in place when it comes to geography, and there's not enough schools around us [the NCAA tries to place as many teams as possible within driving range of a host site, classified as a 400-mile bus trip]. But my personal opinion is seed 16 teams and let them host, and if they're not able to host, then go elsewhere.
"Twelve of the 16 seeded teams are hosting; we're one of the ones that aren't. Last time we were seeded, we went to Clemson. So it's not great for our kids, and the ones I really feel for are the kids' parents. Most of them can't afford to travel like this, and that makes it tough. But you know, we do understand there's a formula in place, and we suck it up and deal with it."
Fairfield wasn't about to make the trip a pleasant one. The MAAC champions welcomed the Cowgirls to the I-95 corridor by offering about as much personal space as rush-hour drivers on the Jersey Turnpike. For much of the opening 45 minutes, Stags sophomore Nicole Cavallaro looked like the most dynamic offensive presence on the field, and Oklahoma State, with the nation's most prolific offense, looked out of sync.
"First half, as an attacking force, we just weren't very good," Carmichael said. "You have to give Fairfield credit for that; they disrupted our rhythm and did a good job of not allowing us to play."
Throw in a wet field on which slips were easier to string together than passes, and the 0-0 halftime score was at least as kind, if not kinder, to the favorite as the underdog. But when the Cowgirls finally began to string together passes early in the second half, culminating in Siera Strawser's goal off assists from Kasey Langdon and Yolanda Odenyo in the 54th minute, Oklahoma State had the goal it needed.
And if life on the road has taught the Cowgirls anything, it's that you've got to pack a defense in the postseason.
"I thought our two center backs were immense," Carmichael said of Melinda Mercado and Jessica Jarrell. "I thought they really did a good job. I mean, Fairfield created maybe three or four chances the whole game, and that's a credit to our back and our goalkeeper. They did a good job of controlling the [18-yard box].
It wasn't pretty, but as Carmichael told his team after the win while relaying news of conference peer Colorado's stunning loss against South Dakota State, it could have been worse. Not that this team needed a reminder. It's been here before. Wherever here is.