Madison Mercado began her last game at the Cowgirl Soccer Complex in storybook fashion Sunday afternoon.
One minute into Oklahoma State’s Big 12 matchup with Kansas, forward Courtney Dike slid a ball to Mercado at the top of the box, where she kicked off Senior Day with an early goal. The Cowgirls added a second goal in the 44th minute, bookending the first half with goals in their 2-0 victory.
“It was a great feeling,” Mercado said. “On Senior Day, (it was) very emotional, especially with everything that’s been going on. It was very rewarding.”
Mercado’s goal was her fourth of the season and the 17th of her career, and it provided OSU with the spark it needed at the beginning of the game.
“It was awesome,” Cowgirl coach Colin Carmichael said. “It was a great goal. We knew that was going to be a tight game. They are good; they are in a very similar situation as we are. They needed wins in the Big 12. So (the win) was big for us, and Maddie’s goal got us going.”
The emotional lift the Cowgirls got from Mercado’s early goal was extremely important, especially after the accident Saturday morning when a vehicle plowed through a crowd of spectators at OSU’s Homecoming Parade, killing four and injuring 44.
“We talked to our team (about it) this morning,” Carmichael said. “It’s tragic. You can just feel the vibe in Stillwater is just sad right now. And our team is no different.”
The Cowgirls (9-7-2 overall, 2-3-3 in Big 12) said they were motivated to do whatever they could to honor the victims.
“We wanted to win not only for ourselves, but we wanted to honor all the families,” sophomore forward Niki McKnight said. “If we were in their shoes we wouldn’t know what to do, so all we can do is hope and pray for the best.”
McKnight scored the game’s second goal when Kansas’ keeper Maddie Dobyns mishandled the ball in the box, spilling it to the feet of McKnight for an open goal just before halftime.
“It’s nice,” McKnight said. “We’ve been looking for that game-changer that can get us back on a roll. We’ve been deserving (wins), we’ve been working hard and playing well, things just haven’t been in our favor.”
McKnight’s goal was her second of the weekend, for she scored the tying goal against West Virginia on Friday night before the Mountaineers earned a 2-1 victory in overtime. Oklahoma State wasn’t sure whether McKnight would be able to play this season due to offseason surgery on her right knee, but since returning to action on Oct. 7, she has given the team a valuable offensive threat off the bench.
“We knew, when healthy, that kid is just a good player,” Carmichael said. “Whether she’s up front, in the back, in the midfield, it doesn’t matter. She’s a very good soccer player…When we got her back and played her up front, we thought it might add some goals, and certainly that has been the case.”
The Jayhawks (8-8-1, 3-4) caused Oklahoma State problems with their aggressive pressing, often switching to a three-at-the-back formation to outnumber OSU in the midfield. Kansas finished with 13 shots, four of which forced saves from Cowgirl goalie Michela Ongaro.
“Kansas put some pressure on us there in the first half,” Carmichael said. “We scored a little bit against the run of play to make it 2-0.”
The Cowgirls sat back and let the game come to them in the second half as they looked to maintain their two-goal advantage. Although Kansas threatened, OSU had the better of the chances on the counterattack, and it was able to hold for the victory, giving its six seniors a final home game worth remembering.
“At 2-0, we obviously went a little more defensive in the second half trying to hold that lead,” Carmichael said. “Overall, (I’m) just really pleased that we won, and really pleased for the seniors to end at home with a win. That was great.”
MORE THAN A GAME
Hearts were heavy at the beginning of Oklahoma State’s Big 12 matchup against Kansas on Sunday afternoon, and the tears were flowing after the final whistle.
On Senior Day, the Cowgirls set out to honor the victims of the Homecoming Parade accident Saturday morning when four people were killed and 44 were injured.
“It was more than a soccer game today,” Mercado said. “It was big for Senior Day, and we wanted to honor those who lost their lives and the families affected in the tragedy yesterday.”
Oklahoma State wore black wristbands, some with the words “Stillwater Strong” written on them, to honor the victims and their families during its 2-0 victory against the Jayhawks.
“We wanted to honor all the families,” sophomore Niki McKnight said. “If we were in their shoes, we wouldn’t know what to do. All we can do is pray and hope for the best for those families.”
The team found out about the accident during its pregame walkthrough Saturday morning. Saturday night, sophomore midfielder Lana Duke texted her teammates about doing something in solidarity to show their support, and the entire team was on board.
“It was insane,” senior Madison Mercado said. “We were just all shocked and devastated. Our homecoming is America’s greatest homecoming. People come from everywhere just to come here and have a good weekend, and for that to happen, it’s just shocking and heartbreaking.”
The accident had a direct impact on the Cowgirl program, for two children who acted as ball kids Friday night were injured.
“OSU is such a tight knit family, and we were hurt by it as much as everybody else was,” Mercado said. “It was very emotional. We talked about it, and we wanted to come in and play our hearts out for everybody.”
Carmichael said he was not involved in any discussions regarding the status of Sunday’s game but agreed with the decision for both the soccer match and the football game Saturday afternoon to be played.
“You can kind of make people smile for the next 90 minutes, and use that emotion in a positive way,” Carmichael said. “As a coach, I think that is the right thing to do. The result is insignificant in relation to what happened. However, it does allow people to focus on something positive for a little while instead of the tragedy that happened.”
The Cowgirls did their best to lift the spirits of the Stillwater community, but by the end of the game, emotions were evident for a different reason.
For six seniors – Mercado, Allie Stephenson, Kelsey Bass, Delaney Kiely, Lauren Reyes and Madeline Wood, all of whom played Sunday – this was their final game at the Cowgirl Soccer Complex. Mercado marked the special day with a goal in the second minute, and all six players collected bouquets and hugs from the coaching staff after the game. Most held back tears while others couldn’t help it.
“I was just balling my eyes out a few seconds ago,” Mercado said. “It has hit me. It’s just crazy how fast it goes. You know, you come in as a freshman and everyone tells you that. My sister [former OSU player Melinda Mercado] told me. But you don’t realize it until you are at your last home game and you are at your last game. It’s very emotional.”
Mercado, whose favorite memory at OSU is making it to the Big 12 Tournament final and the NCAA Tournament in 2013, said she will miss being around her teammates.
“You form such a close bond with everybody,” Mercado said. “You’re with them 24 hours a day, basically. And they are such great girls. And we have formed such a close bond. I’m going to miss them the most.”
Above all else, Sunday’s game was about coming together as a family for the Cowgirls and the Stillwater community.
“We were playing for the seniors,” Carmichael said. “We were playing for ourselves. But we were also playing for the community and the OSU family.”