By Britnee Barry | Orange Media Network
The Oregon State Women’s Soccer team had only beat Stanford once before in their history, yet, on Feb. 28, the Beavers took down the third-ranked, defending national champion Cardinal, by a score of 2-1 in Corvallis.
The Beavers’ Women’s Soccer team has struggled in the past decade. The program has not made the NCAA tournament since 2011, a decade-long drought that’s included a season with no wins in 2014, and another with two wins as recently as 2018.
But, before the 2019 season, the Beavers hired Matt Kagan to be their new coach. Kagan had been an assistant for the Mississippi State Bulldogs and helped them reach the NCAA Tournament in his time there. His winning pedigree immediately brought new energy to the team, which had a winning record of 11-6-2 last year, the first winning record since 2012 for the program.
Now, in just the fourth game of his second season, Kagan has led Oregon State to possibly the best win in program history. It’s not often that defending champions, ranked third in the country, falls to an unranked team in any sport, but that’s exactly what happened when the Beavers faced the Cardinal. David slew Goliath.
“Stanford [is] the preeminent team in the country,” Kagan said. “They are the gold standard. We knew it would be a tough task but you know, this is a year where there are a lot of things different. And I just felt like this, the whole weekend really, was an opportunity for our team to really use as a measuring stick to see where we’re at against the elite programs. I don’t think we ever look at these games as obstacles, but as opportunities.”
The first opportunity didn’t go as well as the win against the Cardinal, as the Beavers lost to the 13th-ranked Cal Golden Bears 3-1, despite scoring first and attempting as many shots as the Golden Bears. After going down 1-0 to Stanford after the first 25 minutes, it looked like history might repeat itself and the Beavers would lose to the Cardinal again, as their only other win against Stanford was a tight 1-0 victory in 2003. But the team itself did not lose confidence, especially sophomore midfielder Abby Schwartz, who would go on to score the game-winning goal.
“It’s funny, if anything, I remember going into the group session at halftime and all of us were just like ‘we’re still in this,’” Schwartz said. “We were only down by one and in soccer that’s not as dramatic as some people think it is. 1-0 and 2-1 in my opinion are two of the most dangerous scores in a game because it’s literally anyone’s game. So we went into the locker room and I remember I walked in there and I just yelled ‘we’re still in this,’ and everyone agreed. The energy was so much more positive than it had ever been, even when we were down a goal there was no wavering of hope or shaky nerves we were just ‘yes we can absolutely do it!’”
Senior defender Kaillen Fried, who assisted the tying goal by junior forward Mckenzie Weinert, agreed.
“They scored one goal on us in the first half, and that was just a little defensive breakdown. They didn’t have that many good chances against us, and we had some good chances against them,” Fried said. “So, to us, we were like ‘we’re so in this still’ like we’re down by one but we’re still in this. So then we went out into the first half and carried that on our shoulders. So when [Weinert] scored the first goal, we were all like ‘guys it’s tied now, we can do this,’ and momentum just kept building and building throughout the game. Our sideline was amazing at just keeping us going and motivating us, they were a big part of that win. You could tell everyone wanted it really bad.”
But there were reasons for all the Beavers’ confidence, as a few days before Oregon State’s win, the team saw Cardinal blood in the water. Before playing Oregon State, Stanford had lost to the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, their first conference loss in 36 games dating back to 2016.
“It was such an upset and a shock to all of us that we got a bit of momentum and a bit of belief,” Schwartz said. “I think that played a major role in the win. Just starting off with that true belief that we could actually beat them and had a real shot.”
So, in a rare occurrence, the Beavers actually have something to be grateful to the Ducks for.
With the added boost of confidence, the Beavers worked hard, focusing on defense and attempting to play a more clinical game. This was crucial after having suffering back-to-back losses where they felt they played well enough to win, scoring first in both games, but allowing seven goals combined and instead came out with two losses.
“If you look at our Cal game, we had more of the ball and lost, and against Stanford, we had less and won,” Kagan said. “We knew we were going to have to defend for portions of the game and the big keys to the game were to be committed to defending and team-defending around the 18-yard box since they have dangerous players all over the field. We did that really really well and we were efficient, and soccer is all about efficiency. The clear-cut chances we got went in the goal and that was the difference between this game and the Cal game. That was the reason we won the game.”
The players took that defensive focus to heart, as Fried had a crucial headed goal-line clearance to keep the Beavers in the game when the score was still 1-1. Kagan considered the play a turning point in the game.
“Probably one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen in my, god I’m aging myself here, 18 years of coaching, has to be in the second half of that game when the ball was going into our goal and Fried came out of nowhere flying with her head and headed the ball just before it went over the line out of play,” Kagan said. “It was a ridiculous defensive play.”
Fried herself had a less emphatic description of her own play, chuckling as she described her thought process.
“Looking back on it now that play is such a blur,” Fried said. “I just remember seeing the ball get headed and, something I’ve always been taught on defense is if you can’t get to the ball run backwards to the goal, so that’s what I did. I saw the header happening and I was just like ‘you know what? I’m gonna try and block this if I can because there’s nothing I can do now.’ So I just ran straight back and saw the ball bounce and just jumped up as high as I could… I remember I just fell into the goal and didn’t know if it was in or not so I remember just looking around and nothing happened no whistle was blown so I was like ‘oh my gosh I can’t believe I blocked that.’”
In par for that heroic play, Fried earned PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors, for which she was very grateful.
It was very humbling, being in the PAC-12 you’re in a conference with some of the best players in the whole nation,” Fried said. “I remember I was in class and after class, I picked up my phone and I was like ‘what the heck, why is my phone blowing up’ and I just saw the post and I actually started tearing up. I couldn’t believe it.”
Fried wasn’t the only Beaver to pick up PAC-12 Player of the Week honors for the historic win, however. Schwartz won Offensive Player of the Week for scoring the game-winning goal in what was a great game for her. Schwartz was humble in describing her game-winner and receiving conference honors as well though.
“It was so meaningful because it was a team goal. It started all the way in the back of the field and we worked it up all the way to the six-yard box and, yes, I happened to be the one that put it in but it was absolutely a team goal,” Schwartz said. “And, [in regards to getting that award], super simple: it was an honor. I was humbled by it, I was honored by it. I absolutely know I couldn’t have done it without my team. They were the reason I was given this absolute privilege. I’m so thankful and grateful and I can’t wait to see what we do next. I know there are so many players on the team that are next up to win that award.”
Kagan mirrored that sentiment, emphasizing that even though Fried and Schwartz were the ones honored by the conference, there were a lot of players who stood out in the game and were crucial to picking up the upset as well. He made sure to put the spotlight on Haley Richardson, a freshman midfielder who displayed a lot of speed, heading, and energy after coming on, and Brianna McReynolds, the sophomore forward who has been proficient all season, with four goals in four games so far, and assisted the game-winning goal, was another star of the game according to Kagan.
“I’d say this is the game where we played more substitutes than we played all year,” Kagan said. “We really found out the depth of our team.”
So that’s how David beat Goliath. The issue for Oregon State is that they have to play in the PAC-12 conference, which features five teams ranked in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. Luckily, the team is confident that the momentum from beating the Cardinal will carry over.
“We know now what we’re capable of because of the game against Stanford. We know what [Kagan] has always told us we’re capable of,” Schwartz said. This week’s training so far has been really positive, really beneficial and efficient. It’s been sharp and crisp and the energy has been so great. I have no doubt that this momentum is going to carry over.”
Fried agreed with this sentiment, but also said the team can’t spend too long basking in the glory.
“There’s no one who we can’t compete with, and that game proved it to us,” Fried said. “I think we’ll definitely be carrying this momentum with us but we can’t sit on it too long. We’ll always hold this super close to our hearts but we have to keep going out and proving it next game, next game, next game.”
Kagan, who’s been on the coaching staff of teams who have made the NCAA Tournament before, said that this game was a big stepping stone for the Beavers to keep improving as the brutal PAC-12 slate continues and eventually make it back to the tournament.
“I think our team is building their mentality,” Kagan said. “It’s something I talk about more than probably anything. I don’t really use the word winning in our program, we just talk about getting better every day. The mental toughness piece is something I thought we were lacking against Portland [where the Beavers went up 3-1 but then lost 4-3] and which I think is growing. In the game against Stanford, you’re playing a top-five team, you go down a goal and the way we fought back and the resilience we showed, I think our mentality grew in those 90 minutes.”
Fried has been with the Beavers for four years now, two of which were before Kagan got here where the team won eight wins total. She has seen the change that has come with this new regime and agreed with Kagan’s assessment of the team growing stronger and having higher hopes and expectations and credited his coaching for the turnaround.
“My freshman and sophomore year I would have never dreamt it would be possible to beat Stanford,” Fried said. “Then here we are my senior year. I’d say the biggest thing is our team culture, we’ve totally changed it. The expectations for our team, we are being held to a standard we weren’t held to before. Everyone is rising up to that and it’s all about the accountability and leadership on our team. We have really good leadership on our team and [Kagan] has done a really good job of raising the bar and then when we get there, raising it even higher.”
The Beavers have now cleared the bar of beating the reigning national champions. With that extra shot of confidence, the next step is one the team believes is soon on the way.