Commentary

Soccer takes root in Stillwater

Originally Published: November 1, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Growing up near Glasgow, Scotland, as a fan of Scottish soccer giant Rangers, Colin Carmichael went to plenty of the team's games with his dad. Just not to the Old Firm Derby against Glasgow's other giant, Celtic. In a rivalry that dates back to 1888 and splits a city and a nation along religious and cultural lines, Old Firm games have at times been marred by violence that would make a night in the bleachers at a Yankees-Red Sox game seem like a Disney ride.

[+] EnlargeAdrianna Finch
Oklahoma State CommunicationsOklahoma State goalkeeper Adrianna Finch anchors a defense that has allowed five goals in 19 games.

It wasn't until years later, on a visit home from the United States, that Carmichael bought a ticket and soaked in the atmosphere of a game that, for all of its flaws, is one of the sport's greatest spectacles of passion.

"It's an experience that, if you're a soccer fan and you get a chance to do it, you need to go once," Carmichael said. "Just like Real Madrid-Barcelona, Boca Juniors-River Plate, those types of matches, it's just an amazing experience."

It's also a good reminder that history takes time.

Oklahoma State's head coach, Carmichael these days lives out a role at the beginning of a story. In a state born of a land rush that took place the year after Celtic and Rangers first played, Oklahoma State is a program building tradition win by win.

When Carmichael was 6 years old, the Old Firm was already close to a century old. When Melinda Mercado was 6 years old in Sapulpa, Okla., neither of the major public universities in the state fielded a women's soccer team. Just 15 years later, Mercado is a senior defender for an Oklahoma State team that is ranked No. 2 in the nation and looking to continue an undefeated season all the way through the first College Cup appearance for the Cowgirls or any Big 12 team.

And while it's not the undying loyalty of generations, it's a sign of something building when strangers stop Mercado at Wal-Mart to tell her she played a good game and they can't wait to come to the next one.

"It's kind of nice to get appreciated," Mercado said. "Especially when our football team is doing so well this season, too, just for soccer to get recognition is nice."

Carmichael has been there from the beginning. After coming to the United States to play college soccer at South Alabama, he remained on this side of the Atlantic and helped launch that school's women's soccer program in 1994. Soon after, he was hired by new head coach Karen Hancock as Oklahoma State prepared to take the field for the first time in 1996. The pitch that first season was an intramural rugby field. The team got its own field the next season, but there were no bleachers, leaving the few fans who showed up to bring lawn chairs and plop down along the touch line.

Building from scratch in a place where the only football culture that existed revolved around people like Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, the Cowgirls won just 11 conference games in their first six seasons. Slowly, thanks in part to well-timed imports like Canadian Nikki Wojtowicz, German Adriane Radtke and Swiss Kathrin Lehmann, the program found its footing (after serving as co-coaches in 2004 and 2005, Carmichael and Hancock traded original roles, and Hancock remains an assistant). OSU's first NCAA tournament bid and first Big 12 tournament championship came in 2003. The Cowgirls posted their first winning Big 12 record and won their first NCAA tournament game in 2006, matching the latter feat in each of the next three seasons.

After they beat Oregon State last season to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time and then defeated Duke to reach the program's first regional final, interest hit an all-time high. An overflow record crowd of 2,660 packed the stands in Stillwater for the quarterfinal against Notre Dame, and while a 2-0 loss to the eventual national champion sent the supporters home disappointed, the atmosphere of the night wasn't lost on Carmichael and Hancock, the same people who had to post flyers in the program's early days just to attract enough bodies to conduct practices.

"Going from that to playing against Notre Dame at home in front of a big crowd is just a tremendous feeling," Carmichael said. "It's something that we don't take for granted because of how far we've come and how low we were at the beginning. … But for me personally, I want to compete and try to win a national championship. That would mean a whole lot if we could do that here because of the history and some of the hours we had to put in to get this thing up."

Not entirely surprisingly for a program with an international coach, Oklahoma State still attracts talent from faraway places, like current German midfielder Annika Niemeier, as well as players from the soccer hotbed of Texas. But 17 players on the current roster, including more than half of a typical starting lineup, come from the state of Oklahoma.

"The Oklahoma girls take a tremendous pride in it because a lot of people wouldn't think of Oklahoma being good at soccer, especially with a lot of [in-state] girls on the team," Mercado said. "So I think we all take tremendous pride. It's really cool that you're able to stay in-state and still be a very successful program."

The Oklahomans, particularly Mercado and Carson Michalowski, are also the backbone of a defense that proves not every championship contender in Stillwater wins with offense alone. The Cowgirls were good defensively last season, allowing just 21 goals in 26 games, but they've been operating at a different level this season. Opponents have managed to score just five goals in 18 games this season, despite All-American goalkeeper Adrianna Franch (a Kansan, for the record) missing six games with an injury.

[+] EnlargeMelinda Mercado
Oklahoma State CommunicationsMelinda Mercado, a stalwart member of the Cowgirl back four, is one of 17 Oklahomans on the roster.

"It starts with [Franch], but having said that, we defend very hard as a team," Carmichael said. "It's something we take a lot of pride in. Our forwards work hard to close down, our [midfielders] track runners and we're blessed with some very good players in the back, like Melinda Mercado and Carson Michalowski at center back. Those two with [Franch] are really tough to break down."

Oklahoma State's rise to prominence in recent seasons comes at an interesting time in the Big 12. Last week's draw at Texas A&M marked the final scheduled game between the Aggies and Cowgirls (although a rematch in the Big 12 tournament final is entirely possible). For much of the conference's existence, Texas A&M and Nebraska were the most successful programs, combining for nine regular-season championships and a 38-17-2 record in the conference tournament (at 9-3-2, Oklahoma State is the only other school with an all-time winning record in the tournament).

Nebraska had fallen off the pace by the time it departed for the Big Ten, but Texas A&M remains a perennial national contender. The Aggies' expected move to the SEC leaves Oklahoma State to inherit the flagship label it was trying to claim anyway, but it also leaves a conference still widely regarded as a step behind the Pac-12 and a couple of steps behind the ACC with much to prove.

"It's a big loss for us -- for the conference in general, but for soccer it's huge," Carmichael said of Texas A&M. "They've been our flagship program. When all the other schools were building, A&M was already there. They were already in the top 10. Ourselves, Missouri, Kansas, Texas Tech, we were all building up and trying to match them."

Getting to a College Cup, something not even the Aggies managed, would go a long way toward cementing credibility. With the stalwart defense, offensive weapons like senior striker Krista Lopez (8 goals, 5 assists) and junior midfielder Megan Marchesano (5 goals, 6 assists), and the prospect of potentially having home-field advantage for the first four rounds, there's no time like the present.

The atmosphere for the quarterfinal last year was a celebration of how far the program had come. A repeat opportunity this season will be about what comes next.

"I think that experience will help us a lot this year," Mercado said. "Now we won't be so amazed and surprised by the atmosphere and playing against a top-level team like that because now we consider ourselves one of those top-level teams."

Call it tradition taking root.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.