Roster changes spell success
CARY, N.C. -- If necessity is the mother of invention, versatility is the sire of success.
Even in a season when upsets upstaged the typical orderly procession of favorites in the NCAA tournament, you would have a tough time finding four teams with demonstrably more talent than Stanford, Boston College, Notre Dame and Ohio State. But with that said, it wouldn't be all that difficult to simultaneously pull out a half-dozen or more teams with similar talent sitting at home this weekend.
The four teams that practiced and met the media on Thursday find themselves still playing soccer because they aren't short on talent. But all four are also here because they're playing their best soccer at the right time. And in all four cases, finding the right pieces for the right holes has been a big part of success in the postseason.
Notre Dame move: Lauren Fowlkes to forward, Molly Campbell to defense
When Notre Dame faces Ohio State in Friday's first semifinal (ESPN2, 4 p.m ET), Fighting Irish senior Lauren Fowlkes will be the biggest headache confronting the back line of the Buckeyes. That's no slight to teammate Melissa Henderson, one of the most prolific finishers in the college game; it's just that at 5-foot-10 with the physique of a heptathlete, Fowlkes is two aspirin shy of a migraine.
Until the start of the NCAA tournament, she was also one of the cornerstones of Notre Dame's defense. In four games at forward on the road to Cary, Fowlkes put up three goals and three assists, compared to one goal and two assists out of the back line in the first 19 games.
"She gives us a player that can hold the ball," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said. "Kind of relating it to another sport, basketball, it's like having that post-up player for you. We had a lot of speed up front and a lot of players that were really good at running at people and taking people on, but we really needed somebody that could hold the ball for us."
As Waldrum noted, it wasn't exactly alchemy; Fowlkes excelled at forward last season, scoring 10 goals. In fact, outside of giving her gloves and putting her in goal, she's pretty much at home anywhere on the field at this point in her career, having played in the back, the midfield and up top. But the other half of the equation came when junior Molly Campbell stepped in and filled Fowlkes' sizable shadow in the middle of the back line.
"She had to be very good for us back there, or we couldn't have afforded to make the move to put Lauren up front," Waldrum said. "We knew what Lauren could do for us up front, but it all kind of hinged on Molly being able to step in and play centrally in the back."
Ohio State: Katie Baumgardner to keeper
Ohio State isn't the only College Cup entrant to switch keepers this season -- Stanford freshman Emily Oliver took over in goal for the Cardinal early in the season -- but it's a little remarkable to think that the person starting in goal in a national semifinal has made six starts this season -- four in the NCAA tournament and two with a Big Ten title potentially on the line in final weeks of the regular season.
Talk about hitting the ground running -- or in point of fact, hitting the ground standing calm, cool and collected in place.
"Rachel Middleman came in and did a wonderful job for us in the beginning," Ohio State coach Lori Walker said of the freshman, who staked her claim to the future in Columbus with 17 starts. "And the two of them battled and competed every single day, and when I felt that it was necessary to make a switch, I think that Katie Baumgardner stepped up, and she's done the things that she needed to do.
"She's very calm -- sometimes to a point where I'm like, 'Are you here?' She's very chill. It's kind of nice. We've got an experienced defense, and so she sits on her line and she just takes care of the simple things that she needs to. Her distribution is tremendous, and I think she's done a wonderful job to just stand in there and do the simple things."
And when the Buckeyes found themselves in a penalty shootout in the second round against Dayton, Baumgardner came through with the game-clinching save.
Boston College move: Julia Bouchelle to attacking midfield, Kate McCarthy to holding midfield.
Boston College is back in Cary to face Stanford (ESPNU, 6:30 p.m. ET) at least in part because of what it found the last time it was here.
The Eagles scored a program-defining win against North Carolina in September, but the long grind of the ACC regular season seemed to take its toll as the offense faltered and the losses accumulated in October. But in addition to regaining some momentum and avenging one of their losses with a win against Virginia in the ACC tournament in Cary, they also found a new holding midfielder. A highly touted recruit slowed by injuries early in the season, freshman Kate McCarthy impressed her coaches with two performances off the bench in the ACC tournament.
She impressed them so much, in fact, that she found herself in the starting lineup for the first time in Boston College's opening-round NCAA tournament game. That flexibility allowed the Eagles to move junior Julia Bouchelle from her holding midfield position to an attacking role. It's no coincidence that Boston College has 10 goals in four NCAA tournament games, exceeding its production in the previous nine games.
"She had a phenomenal tournament down here in the ACC tournament," Boston College coach Alison Foley said of McCarthy. "And then we said, 'You know what we're able to finally do? Get Julia Bouchelle into the attack.' So with putting Julia into the attacking center midfield role, we have more opportunity because she's one of the best final passers of the ball, and we encourage her to get into the box and score goals. I think right now, she's probably as confident as she's ever been in front of frame.
"It's been a great tactical change we've been allowed to do, really due to the fact that Kate McCarthy is playing so well."
Stanford: Courtney Verloo to defense
This move came early, before the opening game, in fact, but it set the tone for Stanford quickly finding its footing this fall after losing three starters from last season's finalist in Kelley O'Hara, Ali Riley and Alicia Jenkins. A forward for much of her life, although she had some experience as an outside back at the youth national team level, Verloo opened the season in unfamiliar territory at center back.
"I think Courtney Verloo could definitely be a great outside back or central defender," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "So when we had a need at central defense, she was someone I thought about. We put a few different players there and tested them, and Courtney came out as the best one, I thought."
Not only did Verloo erase one of those question marks at center back, she at least indirectly helped her coach make another key tinker. With the middle of the defense secure, Ratcliffe was able to move outside back Camille Levin to forward early in the season and slot redshirt freshman Annie Case into Levin's old spot. Considering it was Levin who briefly moved back to the middle of defense when Verloo missed the first two NCAA tournament games with an injury, it's no stretch to think the Cardinal might have been reluctant to tinker with her in the first place if there had been any questions about Verloo's ability to hold down the fort.
"It's a completely different end of spectrum for me," Verloo said after the season's first game, a 1-1 draw against Boston College. "There's quite a bit to learn."
As might be expected of a Stanford product, she seems to have soaked in plenty of knowledge, making the most of playing between two stalwarts in Rachel Quon and Alina Garciamendez.
"She's very good on the ball, playmaking, she's a good one-v.-one defender," Ratcliffe said. "She's very quick and a tenacious tackler. She's just an overall good player. She could play up front, too, for us this weekend and make a big impact, there's no doubt about it."
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.