ALBANY — Nina Predanic sees similarities in their games. They both are skilled scorers, adept at attacking and using their talent to make things difficult for opposing defenses.
There’s a key area, though, in which freshman Olivia Boucher outdoes Predanic, the senior star of this year’s Saint Rose women’s soccer team set to play in Thursday’s 11 a.m. NCAA Division II national semifinal match at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh.
“She’s definitely quicker, faster than me,” Predanic said earlier this week. “Under Coach, she’s just going to develop even more, and maybe she’s going to be the one in a couple years bringing the team to another Final Four.”
Already this season, Boucher — a Sayville native — has done her part to contribute in a major way for a senior-laden Saint Rose team that brings a 21-2-2 mark into its matchup with 23-1-0 Grand Valley State. While Predanic leads Saint Rose this season in goals with 20 and assists with 16, Boucher is second on the team in goals with 14 and overall points with 34.
Predanic’s accomplishments this season have further bolstered her case as one of the best players in the history of head coach Laurie Darling Gutheil’s program. A four-time Northeast-10 Conference first-team selection, Predanic ranks No. 2 all-time in program history in goals scored and total points, and has a chance this week to lead the Golden Knights to their second national championship.
“Our chemistry is great. We treat each other like sisters,” Predanic said of this year’s Golden Knights. “We feel like this year our connection is really strong, and that we’ve bonded not just because of soccer, but because the group of women here are going to be friends for a long time and go far in life.”
Saint Rose’s senior class of 10 players, which includes standout sixth-year senior Morgan Burchhardt from Burnt Hills, has carried the Golden Knights to their first Final Four since the 2014 season. That postseason run finished off a seven-year stretch that saw Saint Rose play in six national semifinals and win its lone national title with a victory in 2011 against Grand Valley State.
In the years that followed that 2014 season, though, postseason wins weren’t as abundant for Saint Rose. While the Golden Knights want to win two more games this season to end their campaign in the best possible way, Saint Rose is also hoping this year’s postseason run starts up a fresh stretch of successful ones.
Boucher is as important a player as any for Saint Rose in making both of those goals possible. While Predanic was this year’s NE-10 Player of the Year, Boucher was recognized as the conference’s top rookie and as one of Saint Rose’s five first-team all-conference selections. Getting to learn from Predanic, Boucher said, has helped the freshman grow her game throughout her first college season.
“It gives me so much confidence,” Boucher said of playing alongside the senior from Slovenia. “She’s such a skilled player and she finds everyone’s feet. . . . If I could follow in any of her footsteps, that would be amazing.”
In Boucher, Predanic said she’s found a willing pupil.
“She’s a good kid,” Predanic said. “She listens.”
Besides when Saint Rose defeated Grand Valley State eight years ago to claim the national championship, the programs have previously met in two other Final Four matchups. Grand Valley State beat Saint Rose in the 2009 national semifinals, while the teams tied in their 2014 matchup that saw Grand Valley State advance on penalty kicks.
Saint Rose brings a talented lineup into this year’s matchup with Grand Valley State, and the Golden Knights are also a well-tested group that Darling Gutheil sees reacting well to the pressure of playing in a national semifinal because of the “grit and spirit” it possesses.
“And we’ve had to fight through an incredibly difficult conference,” Darling Gutheil said, “and I think that all of those challenges and demands that were placed on our players are going to help them be their very best in this moment and on this stage.”
With the exception of Burchhardt — whose extended college career because of back-to-back years with knee injuries began with playing a key role as a freshman on Saint Rose’s 2014 team — no other current Golden Knights have played in a Final Four for the program before this year.
The goal all season was to change that.
“We want this so badly, and we have for so long,” Boucher said. “I think we can win it all.”