November 30, 2010

Women's NCAA semifinal preview

The Cowgirls of Hardin-Simmons after their quarterfinal win.

The Women’s soccer campaign could all boil down to an enticing and dramatic dream final; a perfect No. 1 Messiah against a perfect No. 2 Hardin-Simmons. These two are undoubtedly the nation’s favorites to compete in the championship, as each have yet to lose or tie, with their only blemishes coming in the form of five goals for Hardin-Simmons, and three for Messiah.  It’s been a long season, but looking at the manner in which these two have dismantled their opponents, it appears as if these teams have been in cruise control from the get-go.  It’s a dream final, no doubt, for these dominant teams, but the semifinal matches will be no cake walk.

This is especially true for Hardin-Simmons.  The Cowgirls find themselves in battle with unbeaten Otterbein.  And if anything could spell doom for Hardin-Simmons, it is the fact that No. 3 Otterbein is particularly cool under pressure, and knows how to shut down good opponents.  Otterbein hasn’t played the toughest schedule in the nation, but it exceeds that of Hardin-Simmons’ comparative walk in the park - either that, or Hardin-Simmons is just that good.  Much of Hardin-Simmons scores reflect those of baseball games, compliments of the deadly Kuykendall duo, but part of the reason is that the some of the competition just isn’t up to par. 

Otterbein keeper Tara Carter has kept opponents off the board with only four goals allowed on the season

Ozarks, Louisiana College, Rhodes, and McMurry can hardly be viewed as competitive against most teams, much less against one of the nation’s best, but wins against No. 6 Trinity, UC-Santa Cruz, and UT-Tyler did demonstrate just how prominent Hardin-Simmons could be against very competitive teams.  Senior Amy Kuykendall has been a big part of the Cowgirls ability to play and win against anyone.  She has a team leading 28 goals on the season, while taking 100 shots.  Freshman Amy Kuykendall has 10 goals, and has tallied 23 assists.  And junior Megan Ryan has 12 goals to round out the high-scoring trio.  Seniors Becca Gualt and Sarah Stansell have anchored the young backline, providing major support to junior keeper Rebecca Roth, who has allowed just five goals in over 1800 minutes of play.

But while the national tournament has demonstrated that the powerful Hardin-Simmons side can grind out wins, more than anything it has shown a mortal side to the virtual immortals.  A 2-1 win against Trinity, a team that Hardin-Simmons hammered 4-0 earlier in the season, and a 2-1 win over No. 8 Emory seemed to have a slowing effect on the normally rampant Cowgirls - but they’ve won when they had to, and that’s what matters most at this stage.  And should they continue to find ways to win, Otterbein will endure substantial heartache in receiving their first loss.

As for Otterbein, they too know how to grind out wins; after all, they’ve been doing so all campaign.  A run-in with senior keeper Tara Carter, and the Kuykendall’s prolific scoring could come to an end. However, in spite of grinding out key wins, they've also been blessed with a bit of fortune. It's not often that a team can succeed in a shootout in two straight matches, but they've done so, beating No. 5 Loras and then a surprise Denison.

Senior BreLynn Nasypany leads the William Smith Herons with 18 goals photo by Kevin Colton, Hobart/William Smith

If Otterbein is successful in stemming the highly potent Hardin-Simmons attack, but can't score themselves, their luck just may run out in penalties. Otterbein is comfortable with playing stellar defense, helped by senior backs Hannah Fairbanks and Jenny Knox, and then pouncing on teams when least expected, and the Cardinals could use that edge against a Cowgirl team that is used to dealing severe damage. For that to happen, senior Lindsey Rudibaugh and junior Adrienne Novak will need to add to their team-leading point totals and apply pressure on that Cowgirl defense early and often. Frustration could kick in late on in the match for Hardin-Simmons, and that could be opportunity or Otterbein to steal the show. Just ask Calvin, Wilmington, and Ohio Northern.

Messiah's semifinal match will most likely be much less drastic in contrasts than the Hardin-Simmons/Otterbein match, but Messiah will be very wary of a highly-talented No. 10 William Smith side, who pounded their way through the national tournament, beating excellent sides Oneonta State and No. 20 Williams.  Still, they've shown vulnerability earlier in the season against top-notch teams, losing to No. 4 Wheaton, and then losing shortly thereafter to Rochester. If William Smith sinks into another rut, they will most definitely be the next victim in line on Messiah's path to consecutive championships.

Much of William Smith's hope lies in their talismanic senior captain BreLynn Nasypany.  Her screamer against Williams was one of many vital goals she's tallied for her team this campaign, and if Messiah leaves her unmarked, Nasypany could very well be the cause of doom for the holders looking to re-crown themselves. Coach Aliceann Wilber could also be a wildcard, for the winningest coach in Division III women's soccer history knows how to win, and could very well manufacture another win to add to her tally.

Senior Molly Bletz had a goal in Messiah's second round win

But Messiah has some prolific players of their own, namely senior Amanda Naeher. Naeher's potency on goal is astounding, but more importantly, she's the engine of the team, and her creativity rarely goes unrewarded. She's not alone, however, and powerful players in sophomore Corinne Wulf and freshman Alicia Frey could prove just as damaging as they look to increase their massive tallies (and what if senior Erin Hench had not fallen to an early season-ending injury?).  This powerful offense with their 112 total goals will force the Herons to step up their game as they'll have to score on Messiah to keep the Falcon defense back.  But with only 48 goals on the season, William Smith will need Nasypany to be in play throughout the match.

Messiah's style of play is rivaled by almost no one. Only Hardin-Simmons has demonstrated such dominant form throughout the season, and did so with an inferior schedule. While No. 11 Johns Hopkins came close, twice, to landing the Falcons, they failed on both accounts, perhaps proving that Messiah is simply unbeatable. William Smith not only combats Messiah's experience at this level, or their overwhelming talent, but a psychological factor as well. To beat a team that has won at this stage so often in the last three years requires nerves of steel, and a psyche that refuses to bow down to the phenomena of experience. Realistically, a Messiah loss is unrealistic, and William Smith may not be the team to challenge that. Another reason to hope for a championship of two undefeated teams.

Adam Prescott, Assistant SID at Otterbein University has prepared this preview on the Cardinals.

Cory Furman, the Assistant Athletics Director at Messiah College, has prepared a "game notes" write up on the Falcons.

Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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