Injuries have forced inexperienced freshmen, sophomores into significant playing time for the Beavers during the second part of the season
Back in the spring, it seemed safe to assume this year’s Oregon State women’s soccer team would rely heavily on experience.
The Beavers had eight seniors and two fourth-year juniors on the roster. Of those 10 veterans, nine had appeared in at least 35 games and eight had started at least 15. Six had at least two years of starting experience.
But things changed.
First, senior defender Morgan Kennedy, a 20-game starter last year, tore her ACL in June. Then, four games into the season, sixth-year senior forward Chelsea Buckland, whose 30 career goals rank fourth in program history, tore her ACL for the second time in 16 months.
The hits kept coming.
Junior defender Marissa Kovac, a 15-game starter last year, hasn’t played since spraining her ankle on Oct. 4. And just last week, starting senior forwards Jenna Richardson (concussion) and Brandi Dawson (knee) did not travel to Pullman, Wash., for the Beavers’ game versus Washington State.
So against the Cougars, OSU started three seniors (MF Jacy Drobney, MF Erin Uchacz and MF Haley Shaw), five sophomores (G Sammy Jo Prudhomme, MF Val Margerum, F Natalie Meiggs, D Gwen Bieck and D Laura Rayfield) and three freshmen (D Annie Govig, D Kathryn Baker and F Helene Haavik).
And wouldn’t you know it, OSU (4-9-2, 2-3-1 Pac-12) won, 1-0, for the second time in six days.
While injuries and inexperience help explain why the Beavers, who were picked sixth in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, underperformed the first month-and-a-half of the season, the maturation of their younger players helps explain their recent turnaround.
“A lot of younger players got thrown into the deep end, and they’re learning every time they’re out there,” said head coach Linus Rhode. “They’re all doing a great job. I think they’re starting to figure things out and starting to feel more confident.”
Drobney leads the team in minutes played, but the next four highest totals belong to three sophomores and a freshman.
Baker, one of three players who have started all 15 games, has filled in admirably well for Kennedy as one of the team’s primary center backs.
“I think Kathryn has come in and done an absolutely fantastic job,” Rhode said. “She always had the defensive attributes, that was definitely her thing. She’s a hard-nosed defender. But her calmness on the ball has improved a ton.”
“I was really nervous coming in,” said Baker, who was playing in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, this time last year. “I knew they needed defenders, that’s one of the reasons I came here. Then I started playing and it worked out OK, and I started to get better. Now I’m comfortable.”
Prudhomme, Bieck and Rayfield have all improved in year two after playing significant minutes as freshmen. Prudhomme ranks second in the Pac-12 in saves per game (4.77), Bieck has played every minute of every conference game and Rayfield scored her first career goal in OSU’s conference-opener.
And Margerum, who made 13 appearances (no starts) as a freshman, has started 10 consecutive games since beginning her second season as a substitute.
“It’s honestly amazing the difference between coming in as a first-year and then as a second-year,” Margerum said. “In the spring, a lot of young players got a lot of playing time because we lost so many seniors. And this year, injuries have been the name of the game, so a lot of us have been forced to step up and take on more leadership roles.”
Several others have seen their roles grow as the season has progressed:
• Govig, who played more than 45 minutes in just two of OSU’s nine nonconference games, has logged four consecutive starts.
• Freshman midfielder Sabrina Santarossa, who didn’t see the field until game number five of the season, has played in all but one of OSU’s conference games.
• Meiggs and Haavik were inserted into the starting 11 against WSU in place of Richardson and Dawson. The start was Meiggs’ second of the season and Haavik’s first since Sept. 20. Both players were credited with an assist on Uchacz’s game-winner.
“(Meiggs and Haavik) had to play pretty much (the whole game), and their execution both offensively and defensively was very good,” Rhode said.
Richardson, Dawson and Kovac are all questionable for Friday’s game versus No. 9 Cal. And if the Beavers, who have five games remaining, are to finish strong, it’ll likely be because the prideful upperclassmen refuse to end their careers on a sour note.
Nonetheless, the emergence and growth of so many younger players hasn’t gone unnoticed during a season that lacked positive storylines until recently.
“It bodes well for the future to have a group that’s young and playing against top-notch competition and doing what they’re doing,” Rhode said. “It’s really exciting.”
Grady Garrett, sports reporter
On Twitter @gradygarrett