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Celeste Sloma (left) and Rayann Pruss (right) talk to reporters on Chessa Field, Nov. 8, 2023, in Athens, Ohio.

Soccer: Rayann Pruss' offensive emergence came at the perfect time for Ohio

Nearly every part of Ohio's unbelievable run to the NCAA tournament has been a complete surprise to everyone outside of the Ohio locker room. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Ohio sophomore defender Rayann Pruss being at the center of Ohio's offensive explosion.

When Ohio was facing a 1-0 deficit against No. 2 seed Bowling Green, the team was likely expecting to find an equalizer from one of its many skilled attacking players. Instead, Pruss, who hadn't scored a goal in her collegiate career, became the most unlikely of heroes with a 46th-minute goal as part of a second-half comeback by Ohio in its 2-1 win in the semifinal.

Pruss' highly decorated high school career at Perrysburg High School in Perrysburg, Ohio, included 34 goals and 71 assists in 78 games. This suggests Pruss always had the capability to help spark Ohio's offense. Pruss' four years as a Yellow Jacket culminated in personal and team glory when she scored the game-winning goal in overtime in the district championship during her senior season.

It wasn't long after Pruss scored one of the biggest goals of her 10-plus-year soccer career that she committed to Ohio. Ohio's 3-5-2 system was an obvious fit for the impressive speed and ball skills of 5-foot-1 Pruss. Pruss' abilities and experience allowed her to make an instant impact as a freshman in 2022. Pruss started nine of 17 games she appeared in on an Ohio defense that struggled at times to be consistent in MAC play.

Pruss continued to grow throughout her freshman season and after a long offseason, Pruss was ready to make more of an impact on offense. In Ohio's first match against Duquense, Pruss claimed her first assist as a Bobcat.

Pruss has appeared in every game for the Bobcats, but for the first time all season, Pruss was not named a starter against Buffalo. Pruss handled it well, picking up her second assist of the season on the match’s only goal. Pruss' improvement in 2022, along with strong play from defenders like Quintin Tostevin, Ella Biano and Maia Soulis combined to take the Ohio defense from the seventh-best unit in average goals allowed in the MAC in 2022 to the second-best unit in the MAC in 2023.

Ohio needed its defense during an offensive midseason drought. By the end of the season, Ohio was able to keep its distant MAC Tournament hopes alive by grinding out results. Back in the starting lineup, Pruss helped Ohio's defense only allow one goal to Central Michigan, which was good enough for a draw after a 90th-minute equalizer from Shae Robertson. Then Ohio had one of its best defensive performances of the season in a draw against MAC regular season champ Western Michigan.

Ohio's defense had been just good enough to get into the MAC tournament on the final day of the regular season. The team was playing its best soccer of the season following a two-match winning streak but still faced almost all of the best opponents the conference had to offer. Perhaps because the team was free of the burden of expectation or because of the team's attitude, Ohio was not afraid of any opponent.

"I don't think there's a better word than resiliency," Pruss said. "We're led by such amazing leaders and coaches that it's just so fun. Everyone loves a good underdog story, but it's almost not really felt like we're always the underdog. Honestly, I feel like we just peaked later in the season."

Ohio was clearly improving after a 2-0 road win against the No. 3 seed Ball State, which catapulted the team into the semifinal against the regular season juggernaut Bowling Green.

It would've been easy for the Bobcats to get discouraged at halftime, having been outplayed and outscored by a seemingly better opponent for 45 minutes, but that isn't the DNA of the Bobcats.

"The adrenaline from halftime, like I said, our whole team and our coaches are so motivating and they just got the blood flowing and great vibes at halftime," Pruss said.

The vibes must have been great at halftime; Pruss scored just 50 seconds out of the break. Pruss described her goal in full detail.

"I came out and we got the counter-attack and a cross came from out wide and I see the ball coming, and my defender hesitated a little but tucking in and I honestly just ran through it," Pruss said. "I felt like the ball was rolling down my body as I'm running through the goal. It was just a gritty goal."

Pruss' goal wasn't the prettiest, but Ella Deevers' incredible cross made her job easy and Pruss converted. Scout Murray's goal nine minutes later was pretty enough to make the SportsCenter Top 10. Ohio's defense did its job to keep Bowling Green off the scoreboard for the remainder of the match to get to the Championship match.

Ohio found itself in the exact same position at halftime against Kent State. Funnily enough, Pruss created as many quality chances for Ohio's offense as anyone in the second half, putting all of her offensive skills on display. Pruss' efforts didn't lead directly to a goal but helped Ohio create valuable offensive momentum, which led to another two-goal offensive run. The 75 minutes Pruss played in the championship match against Kent State was the third most she played all season.

Despite only being a sophomore, Pruss' late-season heroics helped Ohio reach new heights as a program and submitted her as an emerging star. The great teammate that the former Perrysburg captain is, Pruss was quick to credit her team for her individual success.

"It's special for sure (to play well at the end of the season)," Pruss said. "Honestly, the whole team has helped me get here."


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