September 5, 2018 11:18:45 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Courtney Robicheaux wasn't agitated.
The Mississippi State senior defender merely wanted to make a point. It didn't matter that there was 1 minute, 7 seconds remaining in the first half and her team was leading Austin Peay 2-0.
"Nobody better be walking on this team," Robicheaux said as she walked toward midfield as the Bulldogs prepared to collect a throw-in near their attacking third.
The cozy confines of the MSU Soccer Field made it easy to hear Robicheaux on Monday in the first half of what turned out to be a 4-0 victory. The win marked the first time MSU (6-0) has shut out five of its first six opponents. It also set the stage for an undefeated run through the non-conference portion of the schedule, which will conclude at 1 p.m. Sunday against Louisiana Tech in Starkville.
The victory against Austin Peay helped MSU climb two spots away from being ranked in the United Soccer Coaches (formerly National Soccer Coaches Association of America) Top 25 for what is believed to be the first time in the program's history, which dates back to 1995. MSU enters this week ranked No. 27 with 37 points. It is behind Wisconsin (50 points) in the also receiving votes category. No. 1 Stanford leads the poll. Texas A&M (No. 5), Tennessee (No. 9), Auburn (No. 10), and South Carolina (No. 19) represent the Southeastern Conference in the poll. Florida and Ole Miss join MSU in the also receiving votes group.
In the Southeast Region rankings, MSU is No. 4 this week behind Texas A&M, Auburn, and Tennessee and ahead of South Carolina.
All of that is good news for MSU, which is coming off a nine-win season in 2017 that marked its most victories since 2012. The program's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 45 was its best in school history. The NCAA tournament selection committee uses RPI as a gauge to help select the at-large teams for the annual event.
With 13 freshmen, MSU will face the SEC's toughest schedule. That gauntlet will begin at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at Auburn. MSU also will play South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida in its first four SEC games. The Bulldogs will attack the rest of its game with a mind-set similar to the one Robicheaux displayed. MSU's mentalist under second-year coach Tom Anagnost is to use high pressure to dictate the tempo of the match.
"That is who we want to be, so if you noticed that, that is a good thing," Anagnost said. "It is something we hold very dear because I want to win the ball further away from our goal and closer to their goal. When you do that, good things happen."
Anagnost said the players have taken pride in and developed an urgency in supporting their teammates, even if they aren't the player who loses the ball.
MSU showcased that mentalist on its first goal against Austin Peay. The Bulldogs continued their high pressure and prevented the Governors from getting comfortable or from having time to re-organize. As a result, AK Ward was able to win possession and to feed Zakirah McGillivary for her first of two goals. McGillivary's fourth and fifth goals of the season extended her goals-scored streak to four. Gabriella Coleman and MaKayla Waldner also scored, and Monigo Karnley had two assists. Rhylee DeCrane made two saves for her fifth shutout.
"That is just what we do on this team," Robicheaux said of the Bulldogs' high-pressure attack. "We're taught high pressure. If you lose the ball, I don't care, you're busting your butt to win it back. That is the mentality of this team."
Robicheaux said that thinking carries over to the bigger picture and prevents the Bulldogs from falling in love with their press clippings. Robicheaux provided a perfect example by saying MSU really hasn't accomplished anything yet despite its perfect start to the season. As a senior, she knows the team's first goal is be one of the 10 teams to qualify for the Southeastern Conference tournament on Oct. 29-Nov. 4 in Orange Beach, Alabama. MSU hasn't played in the league tournament since 2004. If it does that, it will be in a better position to earn the program's first NCAA tournament bid.
Last season, all five of MSU's losses were by one goal, so it could have altered its postseason fate with one or two more results. That's why Robicheaux hopes an ability to re-focus after losing a ball or moving on to the next match will push the Bulldogs to the next level in 2018.
"(It is an attitude that says) we're giving it our all on this next one," Robicheaux said. "That mentality is what we have been taught since day one when we started to train together. Everybody lives and breathes by that mentality.
"It is very good to see (results from that attitude). I am motivated and encouraged to keep going. It is only going to get harder from here on out, so keep going."
MSU senior midfielder Carly Mauldin said the drive to win balls back is one of the team's "sacreds", or tenets to its success. She said it is a mind-set that has become ingrained in the players' thinking. She also sees the younger players adopt that mentality with impressive results.
"It is a good feeling because if you lose the ball it is OK. You're going to make mistakes," Mauldin said. "But if you're going to make a mistake and win it back, that's OK because in our game we do lose the ball, but we're immediately re-pressuring and then it leads to goals. Since it has been leading to more goals, I think it has helped people understand it is OK to make a mistake as long as they win the ball back."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.