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Najera masterclass propels MSU women's soccer to second round of NCAA Tournament

November 10, 2023
<p>Michigan State University senior midfielder Gabby Mueller (7) weaving around Ohio University graduate student defender Ella Bianco (14) <span class="ql-cursor"></span>at the NCAA first tournament at DeMartin Soccer Complex on Nov. 10th, 2023. </p>

Michigan State University senior midfielder Gabby Mueller (7) weaving around Ohio University graduate student defender Ella Bianco (14) at the NCAA first tournament at DeMartin Soccer Complex on Nov. 10th, 2023.

Photo by Maya Kolton | The State News

Freshman forward Bella Najera played a part in all three Michigan State goals in what was a dominant performance from the Spartans that saw them generate 25 shots to Ohio’s four en route to a 3-0 win.

Head coach Jeff Hosler made three changes to his starting lineup from the team's previous 2-1 loss to Iowa. Senior midfielder Alex Hargrave started in place of junior forward Jordyn Wickes, while freshman defenders Mimi Hallier and Renee Watson both started as graduate defender Raegen Cox and senior defender Zivana Labovic began on the bench. 

The Spartans asserted themselves early in the match. In the second minute, the Spartans were awarded a penalty kick following a Bobcat handball in their 18-yard box. Najera stepped up to take the penalty smashing the spot kick off the top left of the crossbar to open the scoring for the Spartans.

The Spartans built on the early momentum pinning the Bobcats deep in their defensive half as they dominated possession thanks to a remarkable high-pressing performance

After the match, Coach Hosler highlighted the importance that high pressing has to not only his team's identity but also their success.

“Whether it’s Ohio or another name on their chest, it’s what we want to do it’s true to who we are. We want to turn teams over and make them uncomfortable and try to get to goals ourselves,” Hosler said while highlighting the zero shots allowed by the Spartans in the first half.

In the tenth minute, senior midfielder Justina Gaynor danced down the left end line of the Bobcats 18-yard box before finding senior midfielder Gabby Mueller whose first-time attempt lacked the venom necessary to beat sophomore Bobcat goalkeeper Celeste Sloma.

The Spartans continued to bombard the Bobcat's goal creating chance after chance. In the 23rd minute, Hargrave fired a shot from 18 yards out that Sloma of Ohio barely managed to parry away.

Moments later the Spartans found their second goal. Hargreave’s attempt was blocked before the rebound was gathered by Najera who calmly picked her head up on the Bobcat end line finding Gaynor who needed just one touch to fire into the back of the net.

The Spartans only looked more dangerous after the second goal creating continuous chances in quick succession. In the 27th minute, Gaynor found Hargreave with a through ball putting her in one-on-one with the Sloma who she was unable to best. Moments later Mueller fired a shot from inside the Bobcat 18-yard box towards the top left corner that Sloma claimed.

The final fifteen minutes of the half saw the Spartans comfortably control the game as they headed into the break following a dominant first half on both sides of the ball that saw the Spartans end the with 70% possession, over 60% of that time being spent in the Ohio defensive zone, and also generate 16 shots, seven of those being on target. While defensively they remained impenetrable holding the Ohio offense to zero shots total.

In the second half, the Spartan's high press continued to bear fruit early on. In the 47th minute, sophomore midfielder Emerson Sargeant pickpocketed a Bobcat defender who took too much time on the ball, finding the feet of Hargreave who then laid the ball off for Gaynor to fire a shot that forced a fingertip save out of Sloma.

In the 64th minute, the Spartans nearly extended their lead to three. Junior forward Jordyn Wickes received a ball to her feet with a marker on her back, she cleverly chopped the ball past her marker managing to get a shot off that was met by the gloves of Sloma.

Five minutes later, the Spartans generated their 23rd shot of the game. Mueller danced past her marker as she drove into the Bobcat’s 18-yard box cutting the ball back to a wide-open Gaynor who pulled her shot high and wide of the mark.

In the 72nd minute, the Bobcats registered their first shot of the game. Graduate defender Ella Bianco stood over a free kick from 30 yards out smashing the set piece with her laces but the effort was comfortably collected by graduate goalkeeper Kaitlyn Parks.

In the 77th minute, Najera added her second goal and third goal contribution of the game. Gaynor stood over the Spartan corner dropping it into the Bobcat back post which found the head of Labovic whose flick-on landed at the feet of Najera who needed just one touch to brilliantly backheel the ball into the back of the net.

Najera now stands on nine goals and six assists in her freshman campaign in what has been a remarkable start to his collegiate career. After the match, Coach Hosler spoke about the impressive stats the freshman has been putting up crediting both her coach ability and high soccer IQ, while also noting that she’s just getting started.

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“This is a kid who’s very comfortable to grow,” Hosler said. "I think she has a very bright future.”

In the 82nd minute, the Bobcats generated their second and third shot of the match both of which were comfortably saved by the Spartans as they comfortably closed out the final ten minutes of the match.

Coach Hosler spoke about the road ahead of the Spartans, stating he believes, “This group’s built for a run” noting the steps the Spartans have already taken to prepare for the tournament and the importance of “staying in the moment” crediting last year’s postseason as a learning experience.

“They know how to kinda approach that process a little better and stay in the moments because when you stay in the moments you get more of them and your season is extended,” Hosler said. “We went out to Colorado for a week because that’s what it takes to win two games in the next round, you gotta be out there for a long time wherever it is,” 

The Spartans advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament which is scheduled for either the 16th or 17th of Nov. The Spartans are set to play the winner of Harvard versus Maine which is set to be played tomorrow Nov. 11. The second and third rounds of the tournament will be hosted at the home field of the highest remaining seed.

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