Cougars land host berth in Big Dance

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PULLMAN — It turns out the Washington State soccer team gets a bonus home game for the second straight season.

The Cougars learned their NCAA Tournament fate Monday during a watch party at the Bohler Gym’s Camp Room.

No. 24 WSU (12-6-1) will play host to Memphis (17-2-1) of the American Athletic Conference in the first round of the NCAA tourney at 5 p.m. Friday at Lower Soccer Field.

A collection of players, coaches, athletics staff and fans were present to see where the Cougars would land in the 64-team bracket.

When the matchup went up on the screen, the cheers were so loud they could be heard down the hallways of the Bohler Athletic Complex.

“This is what Pullman is like, our support staff is like, our administrators and our team,” WSU coach Todd Shulenberger said of the atmosphere. “I knew we’d have a nice crowd and I appreciate everyone coming out.”

The tournament appearance marks WSU’s 10th since 2008.

In 2017, the Cougs made a surprise run to the Sweet 16 with wins over No. 8 UCF and No. 20 Tennessee. No. 16 Florida finally ended WSU’s run in double overtime that season.

Last year, WSU crushed Montana 5-1 at Lower Soccer Field before falling to No. 2 Georgetown 1-0 in the second round.

So these Cougs have have the experience of playing in multiple postseason games.

“We’re excited about it but our work’s not done,” Shulenberger said. “Our expectations are to get there, but then our expectation is to move forward once we’re there. Another game here we gotta get ready for, and a good opponent.”

Shulenberger credited a tough Pac-12 Conference with helping WSU prep for the postseason. Nine Pac-12 teams made the tournament, tied with the ACC for the most of any conference.

Stanford earned the overall No. 1 seed for the fourth straight year. Also in the mix are No. 2-seeds UCLA and USC, fourth-seeded Washington and at-large bids by Arizona, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

“Any game is a tough game now in the NCAA Tournament. We’re prepared for that, competing in the Pac-12,” Shulenberger said.

With the extended season, several records are up for grabs. WSU’s leading goal-scorer Morgan Weaver (11 goals) needs two more to move into No. 2 all-time at WSU. She has 39 on her career.

WSU also needs two wins to match its best in program history.

But first, the Cougs have to get past the Memphis Tigers — losers of just two games this season, both to ranked opponents. WSU is 6-2-1 at home.

Shulenberger said the Cougs are looking in the mirror when they look at the Tigers.

“They’re a Washington State in a different conference,” Shulenberger said. “That’s what it’s going to come down to. Let me tell you right now, they’re athletic, they’re gonna be physical.”

It’s easy to see the similarities.

Memphis is also going into its second straight NCAA tourney and the Tigers have a high-profile scorer of their own in Clarissa Larisey. The junior’s 16 goals are second in the AAC.

If the Tigers key in on Weaver, the Cougs have 10 other players who have scored a goal this season, led by Elyse Bennett and Averie Collins with five apiece.

Collins, a Stanford transfer, brings loads of tournament experience from her time with the Cardinal.

In the goal, the Cougars have their all-time winningest goalkeeper, Ella Dederick (49-29-7).

“It’s going to be an up-and-down, back-and-forth, high-energy, high-octane (game),” Shulenberger said. “It’s two teams that are going to get after it, so we’re going to have to do our job defensively.”

Stephan Wiebe can be reached at swiebe@dnews.com and on Twitter at @StephanSports.

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