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The hunter becomes the hunted: Cowgirl soccer prepares for conference play

OSU vs. San Francisco 001.JPG

Jaci Jones dribbles down the field during the Oklahoma State vs. San Francisco soccer game on Sept. 9, 2018, at Neal Patterson Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (DEVIN LAWRENCE WILBER/O'COLLY)

There isn’t a Cinderella story this time for the Oklahoma State soccer team.

A year ago during the preseason, the Cowgirls were voted to finish sixth. Eight victories and a defeat later, they had their first Big 12 title since 2011 after Laurene Tresfield’s golden goal in the 100th minute against Texas.

With a squad featuring seven returning players from that starting lineup, No. 15 OSU (8-1-0) was picked to finish second entering conference play this season. Coach Colin Carmichael said this season is more difficult knowing he is managing the team to beat.

“Last year we were the hunter, and this year we are the hunted,” Carmichael said. “Teams will pick us as the target at their chests. We are the defending champion, and everybody wants to knock us off. We have to have a stronger mentality than we did last year. We are also national-ranked, and I think wherever we play, people will want to beat us.”

The Cowgirls start their title defense with a pair of away games at Kansas State and Kansas this weekend. OSU takes on the Wildcats at 7 p.m. Friday and the Jayhawks at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Cowgirls will return to Stillwater to host Texas on Sept. 28 and will travel to Norman to face rival Oklahoma two days later.

Carmichael said the schedule isn’t ideal, but it’s the test of the champions’ quality.

“We talk to the team all the time that we have to win on the road,” Carmichael said. “It (the schedule) is more difficult, and it is no doubt. You want to defend your own field, but you have to go away. If you want to be a good team and want to win the championship, you have to win away.”

OSU enters conference play on a five-game winning streak. Set pieces have been pivotal in that run, as the Cowgirls have scored from that situation in four consecutive games.

Eight of 20 OSU goals this season have been scored from set-piece situations, the most among Big 12 squads. Junior midfielder Jaci Jones, who takes the right corner kick duty, said help from associate coach Justin Elkington leads to success.

“Justin pretty much helps the most with the set pieces,” Jones said. “Justin makes sure my form is good and things like that. Set pieces have been really good because we work on them a lot, probably every Thursday before the game. I think that helps a lot. The more we feel comfortable with something, the more muscle memory you gain.”

Defender Kim Rodriguez and Jones have combined for four assists from set pieces this season. One of them was an own goal, and the other three led to Grace Yochum’s goals.

“In set plays, we have everyone who has different skill sets,” Yochum said. “Kim has the great ball, and she puts it on the money every time. People know where to go, like Marlo (Zoller) is good at hitting it on the run or pops out as soon as she gets it back. We work on that, and practice turns out into game.”

The defense that conceded only five goals in nine conference matches last season has picked up where it left off. Carmichael said though defensive consistency is key heading into conference play, the Cowgirls must have preparation to leave their comfort zone if required.

“Every game is different,” Carmichael said. “For our team, some games we are going to win three-two, and other games are the one-nil grinding games. We feel like first and foremost, we have to shut the other teams (out). I think we have good enough players to look for goals out of their individual talent.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com