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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

Sweet Sixteen: AU women’s soccer makes first appearance since 2004

The Eagles sit 19-0-4 on the season after taking down Cedarville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament
Mike Hopkins
The Eagles stand together at midfield in preparation for the outing against the Cedarville Yellow Jackets in the second round of the tournament.

The term: sweet sixteen, normally represents the birthday of an individual turning 16 years old. However, for the Ashland University women’s soccer team, the Sweet Sixteen has a different meaning. For them, it is a contest that could propel them further in the NCAA Division II Postseason Tournament.

After taking down Great Midwest Athletic Conference (GMAC) foe, the Cedarville Yellow Jackets, the Eagles are set to take on the Grand Valley State Lakers on Friday, Dec. 1, at Ferguson Field. With home-field advantage, the Eagles are hoping to advance to the Elite Eight for the third time in program history.

“This group has continued to raise the standard in terms of the culture of the team,” said Eagle Head Coach Cayleb Paulino. “This is probably one of the best locker rooms we have had in my three years in terms of belief in each other and holding each other accountable.  That is a big focus in our program every year is to develop that type of culture and continue to want more from each other.”

The culture growth inside the locker room has drastically altered the play on the field for the Eagles as they sit at a 19-0-4 overall record heading into the Sweet Sixteen. In comparison, the 2022 season saw the team finish with a 15-3-3 overall record while being knocked out in the first round of the NCAA D-II Postseason Tournament.

With such drastic improvements being made both on and off the field, the Eagles have dominated each and every opponent they’ve taken on.

Heading into Friday’s outing, the Eagles have allowed just four goals on the season while piling on 55 goals themselves.

“Overall, our team’s investment in defending as a group is what has put us in the position we are in,” said Paulino.

Defensively, the Eagles have faced a variety of injuries and have had to rely on newcomers to get involved early and often. Alongside the likes of defenders Julianna Williams and Myah Giordullo, freshmen Clara Richardson and Adi Turnbaugh have taken on increased roles this season in the starting role.

Their contributions have helped the team not allow a single goal through GMAC and NCAA tournament action.

“Each year our goals against average has gone down and we make things very difficult for teams starting with our front players to all the way in the back,” said Paulino.

Outside of the defenders, midfielder Merrik Mihalek has taken on a large role on the defensive side of things. With incredible physicality and the ability to poke the ball away from opposing attackers with ease, her play was rewarded with GMAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Against the Yellow Jackets, she played a pivotal role in limiting the total chances for the opposition, holding them to just three total shots on goal.

Offensively, the team has looked towards the likes of forwards Dani Hicks and McKinley Mendenhall to propel the offense towards success. On the season, Hicks has knocked in nine goals while dishing off seven assists, while Mendenhall has found five goals and seven assists.

Going up against the Lakers is something the team has already done this season, as they downed them 1-0 in the season opener.

“I think from game one to now game 24, each team is going to be a little bit different of a version of themselves from our first meeting,” said Paulino. “Being at this stage of the NCAA tournament, every team is going to bring their own challenges to face and their best and it is our job as a staff and a team to be prepared.”

The win for the Eagles came at the expense of an uncharacteristic own goal from the Lakers.

Just like the Eagles, the Lakers have a strong core defensively that have helped them end up where they are now. When the two sides met back on the final day of August, the opposition held the Eagles’ offense to just five total shots on the game.

That five-shot statline would be the lowest on the entire season in a single contest for the Eagle offense.

The Lakers head into Friday’s contest with a 13-3-6 record with expectations of taking down the Eagles and dethroning the No. 2 team in the nation.

In order to keep the team’s season alive, Paulino has resulted on keeping his team motivated day in and day out.

“It’s the expectations we set for ourselves daily/weekly to hit our goals and meet the standards of our program that have allowed us to be as successful as we have been this year,” said Paulino.

The Eagles prepare to take on the Lakers with kickoff set for 6:00 P.M. this Friday, Dec. 1 at home.

“The goal this week is the same as it has been every week this year which is to go 2-0.  We know we will have to be at our best in order to do that,” said Paulino.

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