In back-to-back games in early October, the Colorado Buffaloes soccer team lost two of its most dependable defenders, Joss Orejel and then Kahlia Hogg, to injuries.
To fill the void, head coach Danny Sanchez didn't turn to one of his reserve defenders. Instead, it was senior Mikaela Kraus who got the call despite spending the bulk of her CU career as a reserve midfielder.
On Saturday the Buffs advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 opening-round victory against Oklahoma State. Kraus, a central defender, helped put the clamps on Oklahoma State forward Courtney Dike, the co-Offensive Player of the Year in the Big 12 Conference.
While Dike took advantage of her one clean look to pull the Cowgirls within 2-1 early in the second half, Kraus and her fellow defenders made Dike work for every inch of space on the turf.
"She's a great player and in practice we talked about making sure we provide cover," Kraus said. "I think our defense just works really well together and we made sure we were compact. She did get one opportunity but we didn't let that stop us. We just kept shutting her down."
After a victory that sent the Buffs into a second-round match against top-seeded South Carolina, Sanchez gushed with praise over Kraus' perseverance. She played in 49 games, mostly as a reserve midfielder through her first three seasons. Since the injuries to Orejel and Hogg she has made eight consecutive starts, two more than during her first three seasons combined, and has taken on a staring role in the stretch run of her career.
"It wasn't more than three or four weeks ago where she wasn't playing hardly at all. Ten courtesy minutes here or there," Sanchez said. "But never hung her head. Never made excuses. Just kept working and working and working. And now she's a starting center back for a top 25 team.
"I think this is a lesson for a lot of players and a lot of people that if you don't have instant gratification, how about just work a little bit harder. How about buying in, how about being a leader. I couldn't be happier for her."
Oklahoma State suffered a stunning loss Saturday before the match even started when starting defender Claire Gantzer went down during pregame warmups with what is feared to be a torn ACL.
"I feel gutted for that kid," Oklahoma State coach Colin Carmichael said. "She started all season at left back as a freshman. You feel awful for the kid, but the game goes on. I thought our players that played did a great job of filling in.
"But it does hurt your rotation. It does take one sub off your bench, especially when you're playing at altitude. Which can be crucial."
CU senior Danica Evans' clinching goal with 12 seconds remaining gives her a goal in all three of her NCAA Tournament games. As a freshman with Portland in 2013, Evans scored in each of the Pilots' two tourney games...With the stakes getting higher, both benches on Saturday were chirping with one another and at the officials, culminating with a red card issued to OSU assistant coach Justin Elkington.