Murray State would certainly prefer to be within the cozy confines of Cutchin Field, with its grassy knoll covered with crazy fans ushering on a championship run.

But when the Racers (11-7, 8-2 Ohio Valley Conference) take the turf field at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, this Friday to face the No. 6-seeded Belmont Bruins in the semifinal round of the 2019 OVC Tournament, they'll hardly be rattled.

This is the very same position the team was in one year ago, when they went 7-3 in conference play and had to travel to UT Martin before topping the previously league-unbeaten Skyhawks, 2-1, in the 2018 OVC championship match.

And of the 27 players on second-year coach Matt Lodge's roster, 15 of them were there to fight the good fight.

"We kind of just reflect on last year and know that hosting is not as important," noted senior forward Miyah Watford, now the school's single-season record holder for points in a season. "You'd like for it to happen, but it's not the be-all, end-all. We're just happy to be in the tournament.

"Sometimes when you host, you just feel the pressure more, because you're like, 'We're home; we have to bring the trophy home.' And we don't have that pressure right now."

That pressure might've existed had the Racers not faltered in two key situations: a 3-0 loss at Tennessee Tech on Oct. 3, and a dismal 3-2 loss at Jacksonville State on Oct. 18.

The defeat to the Gamecocks is quite perplexing, too, considering JSU is -- based on RPI -- one of the five worst DI teams in the country.

"I think there's always that ... maybe not discomfort, but disappointment ... that we're not hosting, just due to the fact that I believe the game that cost us the title was against Jacksonville State," noted Lodge. "Which is -- no disrespect to them -- but you expect to win that.

"But I'm very pleased. You ask any coach to go 8-2 in conference, and I think you'd be pretty happy. And we were the two-seed last year, and look what we went and did."

And perhaps Lodge is right; being the No. 1 seed hasn't been so kind to recent teams, including the Racers, who felt the sting of a home upset from SIU Edwardsville in overtime of the 2016 OVC semifinals.

"We did the math, and only two times in the last five years has the No. 1 seed gone in and won it, and they were both us. I'm not too worried. Obviously home-field advantage is massive, but I believe in this group. I've said it all year: we're young, we're talented, we're hungry, and the last two weeks of training is probably the best we've had all year. They're just ready to go."

Wonderous Watford

Sophomore Abby Jones (six goals, 10 assists) and junior Rebecca Kubin (seven goals, three assists) have been particularly intrepid for the Racers this season, combining for five of the team's 11 game-winning goals.

But Watford's 14 goals and five assists was good enough for 33 points, topping Julie Mooney's 2014 season (13 goals, three assists), Harriet Withers' 2015 season (11 goals, seven assists) and Theresa Reedy's 2004 season (13 goals, one assist) as the best offensive performance in an MSU uniform.

Her 14 regular-season goals is also a school record, with the record-tying and breaking goals coming in a 3-0 win at Belmont on Oct. 25.

"I don't really thinking about breaking any records, honestly," Watford said. "I honestly didn't know I was going to, even when we went to Belmont. I kind of just played our game. I got all the opportunities that my teammates set me up for and I just put them away.

"Breaking records isn't the only thing that we're really focused on. We're just playing for each other and with each other."

Of Watford's 14 goals, Jones assisted on two of them, and with two more years left in her collegiate career ... is she next in line?

"It's amazing," Jones said. "I'm so proud of them, and impressed by all of their efforts. And I look up to them. And my goal is to be like them and set new heights for the program with everything I can do.

"Movement from other people and everything working together (gets her open). I don't think it's necessarily her singly. A lot of people get her the ball, and she makes great runs. She's hard to stop. Simple as that."

Perhaps even more interestingly is that three of the four most prolific offensive single seasons (Withers, Watford, Mooney) have come under the watch of either former head coach Jeremy Groves, or his assistant-turned-HC in Lodge.

"That's something that Jeremy hired me for in 2014," Lodge said. "It was my attacking. That's how Jeremy and I operated. He would run with the back four, and I ran with the forwards. And I think everyone knew that, once I was the head coach, we were going to be an attacking team.

"This season, we broke the OVC goals record for Murray State, and -- what -- were we three off of the season record? And you've also got to think of the schedule we played. It's not like we're scoring 10 against Alabama A&M. We're scoring four against Ole Miss.

Three against Xavier, who won the Big East and are in the top 50 this year."

Hopefully healthy

Of Murray State's 27 players, 22 are ready for the 2019 OVC Tournament -- with Maddie Griggs, Elizabeth Tilton and Marley Hall among those out for the season.

But health has been a critical factor all throughout the regular season for these Racers, who've battled injuries between the posts and particularly in the defensive backfield.

Only seven players -- Watford, Arianna Mendez, Izzy Heckman, Emma Heise, Symone Cooper, Grace Bodker and Lauren Payne -- have appeared or started all 18 games.

"And why are we leaking goals? Why this? Why that?" Lodge noted. "We've played four different keepers: all freshmen. We've played 10 different varieties (combinations) of the back four due to injuries and things like that. It's hard for us to say, 'Hey guys, you need to have some consistency,' when it's hard to put that consistent team in. Except for the last three games we have, and we've had two clean sheets. It tells. You've got to have that.

"The back four is an area where no matter what the scoreline is, you very, very rarely sub.

Whether you're winning by a lot or losing by a lot, you rarely take out your goalkeeper and your back four. We've not been able to do that this season until kind of the later stages."

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