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Reliant on Youth and New Scheme, Cowgirl Soccer Remains Undefeated into Mid-September



Of the top 25 teams in the nation, there are only two teams with a record as clean as the Oklahoma State soccer team’s.

And one of them is No. 1 in the nation.

For those who aren’t keeping up, the Cowgirls are 7-0-2 with wins against Oklahoma, Illinois and Missouri and draws with Texas A&M and San Fransisco, on Friday. They are among the top-scoring teams in the nation and have Anna Beffer, the leading assister in the country.

But this is not how anyone thought this year would go.

OSU had a record of 28-28-6 over the past three seasons. Nigerian National Team performer Courtney Dike was up top scoring goals, but the Cowgirls had slipped from a Big 12 contender and NCAA Tournament team to fighting for relevance in both regards.

After Dike and standout midfielder Allie Stephenson graduated, it seemed this cliffhanger team would fall backwards, not forward. A .500 season was probably as good as coach Colin Carmichael could have asked for this year.

But with Dike and Stephenson out of the picture, the Cowgirls dug in with a new crop of freshmen and some experienced sophomores who played a lot as freshmen last year. Carmichael said a lot of their success has to do with the mindset and culture the younger players have introduced.

“Everybody’s stepped up and taken on the void,” Carmichael said. “You got Anna Beffer with tons of assists. Marlo (Zoller) is scoring goals. Haley (Woodard) is scoring goals. Jaci (Jones) is scoring and assisting. Charmé (Morgan) has got three goals from wide positions. Claire (Gantzer) has got two.”

Add that on top of a drastic formation change, and this Cowgirl team is rolling.

In years past Carmichael has gone with a 4-3-3 formation with his teams to give balance on the field, and that worked fine. There wasn’t much flexibility for the three players in the midfield to drop in or go forward, but the three attackers made that OK.

But last season, Carmichael tinkered with his squad’s formation. With many more quality attack-minded players on the roster, he went with a 4-1-3-2, leaving one defensive midfielder in front of the four defenders. It didn’t work well. Starting three freshmen defenders, the Cowgirls were caught out on too many occasions, Carmichael said.

The only way it could have worked was if OSU would have scored about five goals a game to make up for it. It made sense in theory but not in practice.

So Carmichael experimented. Uncommitted to either formation, he toyed with both and even ended up with five on the defense to try to “stop the bleeding.”

That has not been the case in 2017, he said. They haven’t gone back to the bread-and-butter 4-3-3 that got the Cowgirls on the map. Instead, they’ve done something few programs in the country run and OSU has never deployed: The 3-4-3.

Chelsea of the English Premier League and the Welsh National Team are the only two that use it, and that’s where Carmichael got it, he said.

When you see this formation, you might wonder how having one fewer defender on the field would help sure things up on the back. What is misunderstood is that this formation gives Carmichael the flexibility to bump the two wide midfielders back, turning three defenders into five, all while staying aggressive at the top.

Carmichael said he was nervous, but his commitment to this formation has worked. OSU has given up just four goals in eight games with six clean sheets. That’s among the tops in the country.

But a formation change isn’t the exclusive reason the Cowgirls are still undefeated a month into the season. You also have to look at the schedule. Yes, they have played some challenging games, but Carmichael said some of the teams they anticipated would be pretty good were not as good as they have been in the past.

Carmichael said when he scheduled Illinois three years ago, the Fighting Underwoods were an NCAA Tournament team every year. This year, they are 3-5. Creighton was supposed to be better than it was. And OU is having a relative down year at 2-5-1.

Nevertheless, an undefeated run into late September is impressive. You still have to play the games. You still have to get the wins. And OSU has done so while leaning heavily on a group of youngsters. Carmichael said there have been some big-time goals and results on the schedule so far that people might not realize, and more might be on the way.

“We played A&M,” he said. “They’re still top 15. They just beat Kansas 5-1, so that’s a legitimate tie (we had against them). Loyola-Chicago just went to Iowa and beat ’em 3-1. Iowa was 5-0 at the time. OU might be a little down this year, but going to Norman is never easy.

“We’re about to get another great test this weekend. San Francisco’s pretty good, but Cal are excellent. They’re top 15 every year. We feel like we’ve put ourselves in some tough environments.”

Carmichael said he tries to use a formula in order to rank highly in the RPI rankings, which almost exclusively impact whether you make the NCAA Tournament.

“You don’t know what the strength of our conference is gonna be,” Carmichael said. “So some years the conference is awesome, very difficult. Some years it’s down.

“So what we try to do, if we have 10 non-conference games, we’ll try to play four very difficult games: Cal, A&M, OU, Illinois. That was our four. Maybe four that you would look at as lighter opponents … and then maybe two in-between, like a San Francisco.”

But when teams aren’t as good as you predicted three years earlier, all the computer will give you is a number. An official RPI rank hasn’t been announced yet for the 2017 squads, but when it does, it likely won’t be as high as the Cowgirls’ No. 14 coaches’ ranking.

As for now though, Carmichael said there’s “a lot of smiles” around the camp. This is the Cowgirls’ longest undefeated streak to start a season since 2011 when they went 21 games without a loss. They aren’t quite to the Cleveland Indians’ level yet, but I did hear something from one of the Indians’ pitchers that applied to the wave this OSU team is riding.

That “lack of conscious thought” about the streak is there. To a certain extent, it’s like what the OSU football team is experiencing so far this season. Straight business. Straight confidence.

“They believe they’re gonna win,” Carmichael said. “That’s better than anything a coach can say. That means a lot more than any Xs or Os or tactics.

“… They have the ability to win the Big 12. No question. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen what it takes to get there.”

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