CU soccer preview: South Carolina, NCAA Tournament second round

GAME TIME: 5 p.m. MST, Stone Stadium, Columbia, S.C.

BROADCAST: TV — SEC Network-plus.

RECORDS: Colorado 15-5-1; South Carolina 19-1-1.

LEADERS: Colorado — Goals: Taylor Kornieck, Fr., 11; Danica Evans, Sr., 11; Assists: Evans 6; Stephanie Zuniga, So., 6; Goalie: Jalen Tompkins, Fr., 0.82 GAA, .857 save percentage. South Carolina — Goals: Savannah McCaskill, Jr., 17; Assists: McCaskill, 11; Chelsea Drennan, Sr., 11; Goalie: Mikayla Krzeczowski, Fr., 0.45 GAA, .852 save percentage.

NOTES: The Buffs are seeking the third Sweet 16 appearance in the program's 20-year history. CU also reached the Sweet 16 in 2006 and 2013, which was CU's first tourney appearance under current coach Danny Sanchez...With 11 goals apiece, Evans and Kornieck share the third-best single-season total in team history. One more by either player would move them into a tie for second with Katie Griffin, who scored 12 in 2005...Tompkins' .857 save percentage currently is the top single-season mark in CU history...South Carolina's 7-0 first-round win against Alabama State was the 200th in the career of Gamecocks coach Shelley Smith.

Before this season, Erin Greening had never once played defense in her soccer career. Until preseason practices late this past summer, the thought had never even crossed her mind.


But when University of Colorado soccer coach Danny Sanchez made an honest assessment of the distribution of depth on his roster, he realized the Buffaloes featured a glut of talent at the midfield and forward spots, yet were perhaps a little thin along the defensive line.

During the preseason Sanchez approached Greening about taking over the right back position. The lifelong offensive player gladly accepted the challenge, and Greening will be one of the anchors of a defensive line hoping to continue a solid late-season run when the Buffaloes visit South Carolina Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

"We want to get our best 11 players on the field, and as we looked at it she had a good spring up top, but as we really looked at our options in the back we felt we needed more depth there," Sanchez said. "She's fast. She's strong. She's a good ball striker and she has a good engine. Those are traits that you're looking for in an outside back.

"I think the thing that's been most impressive for us is the tactical pieces she's been able to pick up. We're very demanding on her, and all the backs, but she's really adjusted to what we're looking for."

Greening is the only CU defender that has started all 21 games, the mainstay of a group that survived early-season lineup juggling and midseason injuries to veterans Kahlia Hogg and Joss Orejel. When those players went down with knee injuries in back-to-back games in early October, Sanchez turned to senior Mikaela Kraus and sophomore Alex Vidger, a starter in the first five games before getting supplanted by freshman Kelsey Aaknes, to control the middle of the defense.

Sanchez also shifted Aaknes to the left side opposite Greening, and that quartet is expected to make its ninth consecutive start together against South Carolina. Together they have made enough of an impression for Sanchez to bring a now-healthy Orejel and Hogg off the bench, often to help in the midfield, instead of disrupting the cohesiveness of his defenders.

In a matter of a few short weeks Greening, a sophomore from Piedmont, Calif., has gone from a newbie at defense to the most experienced of the bunch at their particular position.

"Honestly, it's positivity," said Greening, whose two goals as a freshman last year both counted as game-winners. "We're all willing to work for each other. We all want to do well and we feed off each other. All of us. We just have to keep on being positive and work for each other. We just need to battle and that will get us a result."

Greening and the Buffs' defense will be challenged to contain South Carolina junior forward Savannah McCaskill, one of the top offensive forces in NCAA women's soccer. McCaskill ranks third in the nation (and tops among Power 5 conference schools) with 45 points, compiling 17 goals and 11 assists while leading the Gamecocks to one of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds.

South Carolina has been equally proficient defensively, allowing only nine goals all season without surrendering more than one in any match.

"Any time you go on the road for a big game in front of probably 4,000 people there, when you jump into an environment like that you have get through the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game," Sanchez said. "You have to let the game settle down. And then at some point the game becomes like any other game. We have to get through that first stretch.

"We really have to absorb maybe early, but at that point I think we have to play with confidence and see what happens."

The winner will face either Oklahoma or BYU in a Sweet 16 match Saturday at South Carolina.

Pat Rooney: or