posted 03/29/14 at 3:44am
on Looking ahead to the Sweet 16
posted by All White Kit
Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 4:11pm EST
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-As has been the case often between Stanford and Santa Clara through the years, it was a close, tense battle that ended with the premature end of one club’s season. And as has been the case all too often for SCU, it was Stanford who earned bragging rights yet again. Unlike the clubs’ earlier regular season meeting that ended in a brutal rout by the Card, Stanford was forced to work much harder for this one, with Courtney Verloo benefitting from Chioma Ubogagu’s great endline drive and cross before a magnificent individual effort that went down as the club’s winner. There was just enough in the tank to see the Broncos off, though there were some serious nervous moments late on, especially when Dani Weatherholt pulled one back. Emily Oliver again proved her worth in goal for Stanford, with another steady display to help stabilize the defense. But more than likely, it’ll be Verloo and Ubogagu’s budding partnership up top that steals most of the plaudits from this one, yet another derby win for the Card.
-Santa Clara’s frustration continued in earnest on Friday, as the Broncos lost to their heated rivals for the ninth time in a row, suffering elimination at the hands of the Card for the third time in four years in this competition. Adding to the frustration is the notion that this could have been the year for SCU to make the big breakthrough. They had a very talented team to work with, while Stanford had some big holes to fill in the lineup. But the gap was still very apparent in the season opener that went so horribly wrong, and while the Broncos were much better in this defeat, they still came out second best to their local rivals. Spare the tears for Santa Clara though. These Broncos may be losing some great performers like Meleana Shim and Lauren Matheson, but there’s a ton of talent returning, including key core players Julie Johnston, Sofia Huerta, and Dani Weatherholt. The club also adds in All-American forward Morgan Marlborough and another great recruiting class. So while Stanford will finish this season as the region’s top team, the Broncos will again be well placed to try and upset the order in 2013.
-Things looked to be going so well for Maryland through an hour in Palo Alto on Friday…and then they didn’t go so well. The Terps’ superb frontline of Hayley Brock and Becky Kaplan had each scored to put Maryland up by two goals with thirty minutes to play. The advantage wouldn’t last nine minutes though, as Nicholette DiGiacomo headed in a free kick to add some drama to the proceedings. A disputed penalty would see the score back at 2-2, and with momentum squarely in Denver’s corner, Maryland’s season would early in extra time at the hand of DiGiacomo. This defeat was probably synonymous with the good and the bad surrounding Maryland this year. The first half rush that put the club up early and saw them double their lead at the hour mark was the best of the Terps, showing their true attacking verve that had helped them rise to second in the ACC. Everything after was less flattering, with the club conceding twice from set pieces before falling in extra time. You could hardly argue that it hadn’t slipped away from the Terps when you see that they put just two shots on target in the second half and extra time. The penalty leading to the equalizer may be debated, but Maryland was on the back foot for much of the game after the first half, with the club unable to get the third goal that likely would have ended it after Denver clawed one back. While the Terps lose some key contributors, they also return some fine young talent while adding some more great recruits. Their finish in the ACC might have been a surprise this year, but you wouldn’t bet against the Terps challenging for honors again in subsequent years.
-They may have gone out a few days later, but Denver and specifically, Nicholette DiGiacomo provided one of this year’s indelible NCAA Tournament images with the manner of their victory against Maryland on Friday. Dead and buried at 2-0 with their main attacking weapons struggling to get chances, DiGiacomo seemingly hauled Denver on her back and past the Terps. There was the beautiful flicked header to make it 2-1, the calmly dispatched penalty in the final minute to equalize, and then the unstoppable rocket to win it in the fourth minute of extra time. It was one of the finest single-game performances by a Pioneer in program history and one of the best by a single play in recent memory in the Big Dance. It was also sweet validation for a program that had been so close, yet so far to making its mark nationally with their recent misses in the postseason. While the Pioneers do lose some valuable players to graduation, they also return some great talent, including DiGiacomo, and could be set for another strong season in 2013.
-It was a performance a long time coming for UCLA. Nobody was doubting for a second that the Bruins were an exceptionally talented bunch, but the results prior to Friday’s win over Kentucky showed a club dominating the opposition but doing just a little more than enough to win in many cases. We had been teased with sensation displays such as the ones used to destroy Princeton and Pepperdine in one weekend but which had morphed into quiet domination in many subsequent weeks. That changed with their demolition of Kentucky. For the most part, the Bruin defense smothered a Kentucky attack with some dangerous personalities, while the offense teed off on the Wildcat defense. Impressively, it was many of the reserves doing the most damaged, with four of the club’s give goals coming from the bench. While it might have been a little concerning that the club’s starting frontline didn’t put a shot on goal, it was a great sign that they could keep on scoring even if the tip of the spear wasn’t operating at full strength. All in all, it was a brilliant performance that only underlined the Bruins’ potential as national champions come December.
-Despite a deluge of wins through 2012, a stubborn few still approached San Diego State with cynicism heading into the NCAA Tournament. There were the usual complaints facing mid-majors about their schedule from the typical grousers, but the Aztecs had largely responded to what was put in front of them with confidence and ease. Their easy win over Cal State Northridge in the first round may have convinced a few holdouts, but hopefully, their victory in the second round over Cal ended any doubts as to the talent of this Aztec squad. Of course, it wasn’t just talent that carried the day for SDSU. The club found themselves down by a goal at the break and responded with a fantastic second half effort. Goals from Hannah Keane and Tifffany Hurst ensured the Aztecs would playing on into Sunday, while the defense buckled down on Cal, with the Golden Bears forcing Rachel Boaz into just one save in the second half. It was a great display of grit and determination and another high point for SDSU in the best season in school history.
-While some unfortunate headlines were being generated off the pitch before Penn State’s matchup with Boston College on Friday, the Nittany Lions were all business on it in their convincing win over the Eagles. A clearly fired up PSU team were up 2-0 by the half-hour mark and looked to have killed the game off right out of the break when Mallory Weber netted a third. Kristen Mewis would almost drag BC back single-handedly, only for PSU to score twice more in the final twenty minutes to establish some breathing room between them and their opponent. Little more really needs to be said about Penn State’s offense, which steamrolled another bad defense, with Weber and Maya Hayes both netting braces to continue the club’s assault on rearguards everywhere. The defense…well, let’s just say questions continue to linger over that unit. PSU played with four at the back a bit here, while they’ve played with three there for much of the season, but they still gave up an eye-watering twenty-four shots. While BC has an offense that certainly ranks among the top units in the nation, PSU nonetheless has to be a little worried about the number of opportunities they gave up. Still, the club managed to keep their composure after seeing their lead shrink from 3-0 to 3-2 in a flash, which is an important sign of growth for Erica Walsh’s side.
-At the other end of the spectrum in that offensive fireworks display was a Boston College side, whose season petered out in disappointing fashion. Some, including yours truly, felt that if BC could just put it all together, they’d be a contender to make it to San Diego. They didn’t. Other than a great 1-1 draw at Stanford and their shock win at home against Florida State, the Eagles were a massive disappointment and a prime example of stars not playing up to their talent level. While Stephanie McCaffrey and McKenzie Meehan both had strong seasons in the attack, and Kristen Mewis had another otherworldly year, Victoria DiMartino ended her college career with another disappointing campaign, scoring just twice. The defense was an unmitigated disaster, giving up goals by the bushel, this despite having Alexa Gaul, a top-notch keeper, in between the pipes. The club does return eight starters next season, but without Gaul, Mewis, and DiMartino, their task doesn’t get any easier. Alison Foley’s done less with more than perhaps any coach over the past two seasons, so Eagle supporters will be hoping desperately that she can do more with less as next year’s squad tries to rebuild itself into a contender.
-Regardless of your feelings about Greg Ryan’s tenure as USWNT boss, his work at Michigan has to be recognized as excellent on the whole. Nowhere was this more evident than in Friday’s triumph over Portland. Coming into the match as underdogs, Michigan played as anything but, taking an early lead and never looking back, as they put three on the board in shortly over an hour. Nkem Ezurike, so vital to Ryan’s rebuilding efforts in Ann Arbor, was in imperious form, helping set up her side’s first two goals before proving the nail in the coffin in the second half. The burly Canadian has been in impressive form this season with Michigan, and it seems only a matter of time until she gets the chance to show what she can do for the full Canadian WNT ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. While opposing defenses try to block out the nightmare of Ezurike and Christine Sinclair potentially running at them, Portland will likely want to forget their performance offensively against a stout Michigan defense that held them to just a single shot on goal. While Ezurike’s scoring has dominated most of the headlines surrounding the Wolverines, it’s been the steady defense as much as anything that’s allowed UM to rise back up the national hierarchy.
-It goes without saying that Portland made some positive strides this year. After last year’s trying season, which saw the Pilots struggle to make the NCAA Tournament, the club’s journey to the postseason was much more sedate this year, though the club was a bit streaky in form. But their second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was disappointing in the sense that they had earned a national seed and probably lost a round too early in that sense. A lack of depth and injuries took their toll on the Pilots at times this season, with Ellen Parker not making it back for the postseason, and Micaela Capelle being limited in minutes by similar concerns. While pessimists might argue that Portland’s time as an elite program has passed, 2013 looks like it could be a monster year for the program. Ten starters look set to return, with the club also adding what looks to be a great recruiting class. Given the challenges facing the club this season, a second round exit after a strong regular season will probably be tolerable, but the pressure may be on next season to claw their way back up towards the nation’s elite.
-For about ten minutes, Virginia looked to be in a bit of a bind in their second round matchup against Rutgers. Despite seemingly starting strong, they found themselves down 1-0 after Jonelle Filigno netted from six yards in the eighth minute. It’d be Rutgers’ only shot on goal. Virginia would hit back through Makenzy Doniak before unleashing a torrent of offense on the Scarlet Knights to prevail, 6-1. Danielle Colaprico had one of her finest games in UVA colors, while Caroline Miller kept plugging along with two more goals and an assist. Doniak’s showing, featuring that equalizer and an assist on the club’s fifth was another promising sign, considering she had cooled down considerably after a blazing hot start to her college career. That the defense was able to regroup themselves after being shocked early was also impressive to see. Rutgers really wasn’t anything special this season, but UVA cut through them like butter in one of the more impressive second round displays in recent seasons.
-Statements generally don’t get much bigger than the one North Carolina made on Friday night against Illinois. The Heels looked like they could be making a wrong type of statement early on, as they went down 1-0 before ninety seconds had been played when Nicole Breece netted a shock opener. It didn’t take long for Carolina to hit back though, as Kelly McFarlane netted an equalizer some five minutes later. The Heels would come out of the break up 2-1, and once they netted an own goal a couple minutes into the half, the wheels came off of Illinois, with UNC hitting them for nine, with seven player scoring a goal. While the club probably won’t be too thrilled about conceding twice, the offensive display at hand was devastating. The move to put Dunn up front looked like a masterstroke, and the three-player defense of Illinois couldn’t handle the ceaseless pressure of the home side. Everything offensively was clicking, and when Carolina’s getting that type of production from their stars, opponents don’t stand a chance.
-It wasn’t exactly the prettiest display in the world, it seldom is with Baylor, but their win over Georgetown in the second round was a fine representation of the grit and resolve that has defined such a brilliant season. Baylor had been steadily peppering the Hoya goal for much of the match but were finding a frustrating amount of resistance as they tried to open up the scoring. This continued for much of the second half as well, and it looked like disaster had struck for the Bears when Daphne Corboz put the Big East side up with less than eight minutes to play. A lesser team could have folded, but the Bears pressed on and got their just reward with a scrappy goal to equalize with less than two minutes left to play. Dana Larsen would net a winner early in extra time, giving the Bears a richly deserved spot in the Sweet Sixteen. Baylor’s certainly not a team of star power, but their determination and blue collar mentality certainly paid off for them here as they punched their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.
-Going behind in the monstrous altitude of Provo is never a great path to victory, but Marquette managed it on Thursday against a game Princeton side. The Golden Eagles looked to be in trouble early on after Lauren Lazo opened up the scoring early for the Ivy League side. But Mady Vicker would turn the game on its head late in the first half, netting in the final minute to put the clubs on a level playing field going into the second stanza. The final forty-five minutes was all Marquette, who capitalized early on a set piece to take the lead and then finished it off with another goal from a corner late to give themselves breathing room. The Golden Eagle offense didn’t prove to be explosive on the night, getting off just ten shots, but they were very opportunistic in putting three of their seven shots on goal in the back of the net. The defense also did a fantastic job of smothering Princeton after that early goal conceded, limiting the Tigers to just two shots on goal and three overall on the night.
-It wasn’t very pretty, and it may have ended on a penalty kick, but BYU still ended up getting the job done against a plucky Auburn side in the second round in Provo. The Cougars’ offense looked a little out of sync for much of the night, and things seemed a little closer than they should have been for a half at least, though the match began to swing the home side’s way in the second stanza. Extra time still loomed though, as the BYU attack still found themselves struggling for the winner. They’d catch a break though, when Michelle Murphy was clattered just inside the area in the final minute of regulation, earning them that last minute spot kick. Carlee Payne Holmoe would keep her nerve to fire the Cougars into the last sixteen, sending the crowd into euphoria. Compared to some of the club’s other offensive showings this season, the performance may have been disappointing, but BYU found a way again to win, which is one of the true marks of a club contending for honors.
-In the end, it’s probably going to get lost in the noise of the tournament as a whole, but it’s hard not to tip your cap towards Auburn’s general direction. The Tigers ended up playing both NCAA Tournament games without their best scoring option by a mile, Tatiana Coleman, and gave a fairly respectable account of themselves. While their first round matchup against Washington obviously ended up bearing more fruit, the Tigers in no way disgraced themselves against the WCC champions on Thursday night. The offense didn’t exactly threaten BYU in large part, but the defense did a great job of last ditch defending all night and stymied a potent Cougar offense for much of the evening. You also have to give a special mention to senior goalkeeper Amy Howard, who saved Auburn’s bacon with some big saves throughout the night and will be hard to replace next season.
-The second round of the NCAA Tournament afforded Florida a chance to avenge one of the most infamous losses in recent program history, as they faced off against UCF one season after falling to the same opponent in a humiliating defeat in Gainesville in the 2011 NCAA Tournament second round. That was a close run, passionate derby. This was nothing of the sort, as the Gators made the Knights look like a pub team, so to speak, holding their rivals to one off-target shot for the entire ninety minutes. The Florida attack wasn’t exactly explosive on the evening, but then again, it didn’t have to be, with full-back Taylor Travis’ goal at the hour mark being more than enough for the Gators to go through to the last sixteen. Beyond being a highly convincing display, it also went some way in establishing Florida’s place above UCF in the state’s hierarchical pecking order. Two straight defeats to their rivals in the Big Dance might have had some wondering if UCF hadn’t surpassed the Gators. Fortunately for Becky Burleigh’s side, those fears proved to be quite unfounded.
-Irish eyes were most definitely smiling after Friday’s upset over Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Many figured that the matchup against the experienced Demon Deacons side that had gone all the way to the last four last season was a bad one, considering the ACC side’s experience at this level dwarfed the youth heavy Notre Dame side’s experience. It wasn’t to be in the end though, as Notre Dame proved their mettle in a big way in the comeback victory. It certainly looked like going the seeded side’s way going into the second half, as Wake had taken a late lead in the first half while holding the Irish without a shot on goal. But things changed definitively after the break, as it was Notre Dame on the front foot, with Cari Roccaro netting the equalizer just short of the hour mark. The momentum was now clearly swinging the Big East side’s way, and Crystal Thomas brought her side all the way back soon after to stun Wake. While the Demon Deacons would threaten a little immediately after, they wouldn’t net one shot in the final sixteen minutes as Notre Dame effectively shut up shop. In this case, the proactive move of moving Cari Roccaro up top at the break helped energize the attack, though her goal actually came after a corner kick, with set pieces being an increasingly important part of the UND gameplan this season. The Irish have continued to show impressive growth down the stretch this season, and finishing as the more composed side against such an experienced team only reiterates the excellent job head coach Randy Waldrum has done in molding this young group into a contender.
-It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Wake Forest. It certainly wasn’t supposed to end this early. The Demon Deacons had seemingly made a massive breakthrough last season with their trip to the College Cup and looked to be on the shortlist of national title contenders coming into this season with almost all of its starters returning. But 2012 ended up being a challenging campaign, as Wake struggled to get their offense going early without Katie Stengel and then suffered through some fitful form early on in league play. They had seemingly gotten it together by the end, finishing third in the cutthroat ACC but then going down in the ACC Tournament semi-finals to Maryland. The NCAA Tournament was one last chance for the group to make a lasting impression this year, but defeat to Notre Dame snuffed out those hopes. While Wake looked well poised to advance after taking a lead into halftime, they were slow out of the blocks following the interval and paid the price. Considering how many upperclassmen populated Wake’s starting lineup, to go out so early has to be brutally disappointing for Tony da Luz and co. Provisionally, Wake loses an ACC high five starters next season, though they do return key players Katie Stengel and Aubrey Bledsoe to the fold. With a strong recruiting class coming in, that golden generation could yet lift silverware, but the window for big success could snap shut for the time being after next season.
-While most relished a meeting of the minds between Florida State and Texas Tech head coaches Mark Krikorian and Tom Stone, few actually anticipated the encounter to be so nail-bitingly competitive. In actuality, it wasn’t just competitive, but the less fancied Red Raiders had chances to win the match at numerous junctions, taking an early lead before equalizing late and having some chances in extra time. Still, the more savvy and experienced Noles managed to keep their cool, even after going down in the first quarter of an hour. FSU continues to get great contributions from off the bench, with sparsely used reserve Marta Bakowska-Mathews coming up huge to equalize in the first half. The more crucial Tiffany McCarty continue her blazing run of form after the break, netting the club’s go-ahead goal before winning it roughly six minutes from penalties in extra time. It was another test passed for a club with a bullseye on its back all season and another step forward towards that elusive national title.
-Texas Tech may have seen their season come to an end, but they certainly won many friends after a thrilling display in Tallahassee. To have pushed the top seeded Seminoles to the brink with such a inexperienced squad at this level was a real eye-opener as to the progress being made in Lubbock by Tom Stone and co. Once the very definition of a collegiate soccer backwater, Texas Tech now looks like one of the nation’s fastest rising programs. Janine Beckie has easily been one of the nation’s premier freshmen this season and almost made herself a superstar with two goals in this defeat to FSU, giving her fourteen goals in an amazing rookie season. The Colorado native already looks like a program changer and could be a Hermann Trophy contender by the time she graduates. There’s no shortage of young talent elsewhere, with the likes of Jaelene Hinkle and Paige Strahan impressing for Stone’s side this season and the promise of plenty more top prospects coming to the Red Raiders in coming years. 2012 may have been TTU’s first foray into the NCAA Tournament, but it certainly won’t be the last, with the Big XII side likely to challenge for trophies next season in the league and for further progress in the Big Dance in all likelihood.
-They aren’t among the best known of Stanford’s starting core, but Alex Doll and Nina Watkins provided the drive and the goals from midfield that helped the Card on their way to the last eight with victory against Denver on Sunday. While star forwards Courtney Verloo and Chioma Ubogagu still made their present felt, sometimes in sync as in Doll’s opener, it was the more unheralded pieces of the Stanford machine that stole the spotlight on this day. Both Watkins and Doll have turned into key contributors in the midfield this season, which has been critical after the big loss of Teresa Noyola and Kristy Zurmuhlen from last year’s squad. The defense, spearheaded by Rachel Quon and Alina Garciamendez also did their job near flawlessly in this one, holding a determined Denver side without a shot on goal throughout, all the more impressive considering the Pioneers’ offensive eruption just a few days earlier. UCLA comes calling on Friday in a rematch of an instant classic from the regular season, and there’s no evidence that the second meeting will be any less entertaining or tense than their first showdown in Westwood earlier in the year.
-For whatever reason, Penn State was not able to top rivals Michigan in their two meetings this year. Ironically, PSU’s second meeting with the Wolverines went much like their first, with the Nittany Lions bombarding the Wolverine goal with a flurry of shots, only to be turned back time and time again by the excellent Haley Kopmeyer in goal. Like the first match, the home side also found themselves behind a goal and chasing the game, though thankfully for PSU supporters’ blood pressure, their club didn’t leave it so late, equalizing through a Whitney Church header off a corner right before the break. Though they certainly pushed, there wasn’t a way to a winner, and Penn State looked to be on their way out after going down 2-0 after two rounds in the shootout. The Nittany Lions would make an improbably comeback though, with Erin McNulty saving three straight penalties, and PSU’s next three shooters scoring to cap off an incredible rally. It’s hard to say enough about the defensive job the club did on Canadian battering ram Nkem Ezurike, limiting the dangerous forward to just one off-target shot, though Clare Stachel did have a great game for the Wolverines. It’s not like the PSU offense fell silent either, they just ran into a hot goalkeeper and a club that did a lot of bending but little breaking in defense. PSU’s mental strength deserves plenty of plaudits as well, as it’s hard envisioning too many teams going down 2-0 in penalties and rallying back for the win. The Big Ten’s supporters will be pleased that the defense put in a much better performance on the whole than in the frantic game against Boston College, but that defense will be put to the test once again on Friday against a Duke team packing plenty of weapons.
-Michigan may have seen their Elite Eight hopes go up in smoke in that dramatic penalty shootout, but the Wolverines are far from being down and out as a program. The prospect of the Wolverines being so close to the last eight nearly a half decade ago as Ryan was just beginning to sink his teeth into the job was unthinkable. A program where the rot had set in in undeniable fashion, Michigan has made steady progress towards the national elite in recent seasons. While the Wolverines took a step backwards last season, they took a giant leap forward this year, as can be evidenced by their ability to run right with Penn State on two separate occasions. While two of the stars of the Sweet Sixteen defeat, Clare Stachel and Haley Kopmeyer graduate, Michigan still has plenty returning for next season, including powerhouse forward Nkem Ezurike, to go with another formidable recruiting class. After this season’s impressive performance, there’s really no reason why Michigan can’t push on for Big Ten honors in the next few seasons.
-So what was that I was saying about UCLA needing to blow someone out in convincing fashion? Any lingering doubts that the Bruins are a contender to win it all have surely been snuffed out with their performances over the past weekend. After crushing Kentucky in the second round, the Bruins had little trouble putting San Diego State to the sword on the Aztecs’ home turf on Sunday afternoon. Given UCLA’s excellent defense, the game was all but over after just a quarter of an hour, as a quickfire double from Zakiya Bywaters put the Los Angeles side up 2-0. Chelsea Braun would make it academic in the second half from short range, but SDSU already had a very long way back going into the break considering they had just a single shot on goal in the opening stanza. Bywaters has allayed any concerns about her leading the line up front with a dazzling season, including her brace here that propelled the Bruins into the last eight. UCLA probably would’ve liked to have seen more offensively from linemates Rosie White and Taylor Smith, but as long as Bywaters keeps scoring, things will likely be just fine. On the whole though, UCLA did only put five of their seventeen shots on goal, a ratio that probably has to improve on Friday if the Bruins are to make it to San Diego. Offensive inefficiencies aside, the defense was still great in keeping a strong SDSU attack at bay, and has been very impressive on the whole in the postseason. The biggest challenge waits in Palo Alto, of course, as UCLA tries to break their hex against Stanford and reach the College Cup.
-San Diego State’s magical season may have ended, but it was a thrilling ride for the Mountain West side. The Aztecs looked primed for a solid season with the amount of experience they had returning to the fold going into this year, but few could have expected their success come the end of the year. Given another draw, SDSU might have advanced further, but Mike Friesen’s club just ran into a blue and gold buzzsaw on Sunday. While SDSU will certainly look back on this year fondly, the question now is whether the Aztecs can become a consistent contender on the national stage. There’ve been other glimmers of great hope with the program, only to be racked by subsequent bouts of inconsistency. At first glance, SDSU has some work to do, including replacing inspirational veteran Tiffany Hurst, along with breakout attacking star Megan Jurado. With the return of Haley Palmer to the defense and Rachel Boaz in goal, SDSU should still be a force defensively though, and that makes them a club with great potential again going into the 2013 campaign.
-After what might be called an eventful few months, Duke’s season has essentially come full circle, with the Blue Devils back where they were near the beginning of the season as one of the prime contenders to win it all. It’s all been a bit harrowing for Duke supporters this season. They saw the destructive offensive displays early, the self-destructive defensive displays for much of the regular season, and the validation that came with their 3-1 upset of Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen on Sunday. There was anxiety heading into the NCAA Tournament after Duke had finished sixth in the league and made an early exit in the ACC Tournament, but Sunday’s win over UVA was a definitive statement as to the Blue Devils’ ability to beat anyone in the country. The aerial ability of Kim DeCesare was always going to be a threat against a Cavalier backline that lacks height, and so it was here, as the Duke attacker headed home a Laura Weinberg cross for the first goal. Duke would go into the break ahead by two when Mollie Pathman smashed home from a Kaitlyn Kerr cross. The Blue Devils would hang on for dear life for much of the second half as Virginia threw numbers forward but made the last seconds tolerable when DeCesare would score off a counter attack. Head coach Robbie Church certainly has to be praised for his tactical bravery in this one. Instead of going for a more defensive bent with Pathman at left-back as has been the case at times this year, he chose to employ her up front with Weinberg and DeCesare who combined with Kerr and Pecht in midfield to form an extremely attack-minded group. There was the natural reshuffling after the half, but for forty-five minutes, Duke very much had Virginia on their heels. Given how well the all-out attack mentality has worked for them so far in the NCAA Tournament, expecting a change in pattern against Penn State on Friday would seem rash.
-Another year, another NCAA tournament disappointment for Virginia, and this one may sting more than usual. Their late season flourish had seen them rise into prominence as one of the hotly tipped teams to win it all, but instead, the Cavs went out with a whimper at an all too familiar stage to an all too familiar opponent. The obvious talking point for many will be the exclusion of star midfielder Morgan Brian from the starting lineup, and there have certainly been multiple theories as to why the sophomore started from the bench. Regardless of the reason, the effect on the Cavs was noticeable early on, and UVA was already down by a goal by the time Brian did join the contest. Duke had Virginia on their heels in the first half, and the home side ended up unable to pull themselves out of a two-goal hole they faced at the break. While the club should still enjoy a bright future with the amount of talent returning, it’s hard to see this as anything but a missed opportunity for the club. The club loses some serious offensive muscle with the loss of Caroline Miller to graduation, while Erica Hollenberg and Julia Roberts’ losses will also be felt. The club still boasts a lot of attacking talent, but the defensive weaknesses, specifically a lack of height on the backline, were all too apparent and exposed by Duke here. Given what looks like a focus on attacking recruits for next season and sophomore Olivia Brannon falling out of favor, you wonder if that situation will improve next season. Above all else though, the question of mentality in this competition has to be answered. Virginia’s been in this same position plenty of times in their past, but the same mental block that has kept them from rising to the level of the nation’s elite has lingered.
-If Friday’s demolition of Illinois was a callback to the great UNC teams of the past that smashed opponents without difficulty, Sunday’s game was more of an aesthetic abomination. Neither side’s offense exactly set the world on fire, but after UNC’s high powered display on Friday, it was still jarring to see the attack look so bogged down. Defense was more of a concern early though, as the club went down 1-0 going into the break and were perhaps quite lucky to not be down by more after Baylor hit the post twice in the first twenty minutes of the second half. Carolina’s only shot on goal for the half would be the equalizer, as Crystal Dunn scored a great goal to ease the tension building at Fetzer Field. UNC would turn up the heat in extra time, but despite taking eight shots, they put just one on goal, necessitating a shootout, which they won confidently. The ACC powerhouse Tar Heels continue to be a team of great contradictions. On one hand, they look an unstoppable force with displays like the one against Illinois in the second round. On the other, they look very vulnerable with displays like this one against Baylor, who were very unfortunate to not be up by multiple goals early in the second half. How the offense can look so dominant on one day and then so feeble for much of this game is a puzzle of inconsistency that Carolina has to figure out if they want to win it all. What is becoming clear is that Crystal Dunn will likely be used on the attack, either in midfield as she was here, or up top as she was earlier in the tournament. Her role in the quarterfinal against BYU will likely be key to UNC’s hopes of making it to San Diego. At the very least, Carolina can at least take heart in the fact that they were able to bury their shootout demons for the time being with their assured performance in spot kicks here.
-Baylor’s season may have ended after that penalty shootout, but the growth that’s been made in Waco over the past few seasons is undeniable. After all, the Bears met North Carolina one round earlier last season and got their doors blown off in a thoroughly one-sided encounter. This season, Baylor was likely one different bounce off the post away from pulling off the upset in Chapel Hill. The signs of growth go far deeper than that though, as the Bears also won their first major trophy in ages by lifting the Big XII Tournament title and were a steady winner under Marci Jobson. The key now for the Waco club is to start to attract the type of recruit that can carry the program to the next level. How long that will take is certainly debatable, but the Baylor boss has done a fine job thus far without any household names on the books. In the meantime, the Baylor brass would be wise to open up the checkbook and ensure Jobson is content in Waco. Her success to this point will undoubtedly make her an attractive option for big name suitors, and losing the talented boss would be a hammer blow for a program on the up once again.
-BYU’s NCAA Tournament showings haven’t exactly been a display of dominance, but there’s something to be said about getting the job done, which fifty-six teams haven’t been able to do at this point. After a controlled, but utterly nerve wracking experience against Auburn on Thursday, BYU faced much of the same against Marquette on Saturday night. They outshot the Big East champs in both shots overall and shots on goal but just couldn’t generate any goals through regulation. It speaks to a bit of a problem the Cougars have been having lately in displaying enough of a cutting edge in front of goal. The Cougars went rounds two and three without scoring a goal in the run of play despite putting plenty of shots up on the board, which has to be a worrying sign for coach Jennifer Rockwood. Generally, the attack seemed a little out of sync against Marquette, creating some chances but just being a bit too early or late in pulling the trigger. Obviously, the margin of error dwindles considerably going into the Elite Eight, and BYU needs to sort out those offensive struggles if they’re to book their place in San Diego. The good news is, they’ve also managed to concede just one goal in three NCAA Tournament matches so far. They probably ended up giving up more shots than they would have liked in this one, but they did hold the Golden Eagles’ offensive talisman, Maegan Kelly, without a shot on goal. That defense will need to be on their toes again on Friday with a dangerous UNC attack coming to town.
-Marquette lost one of the nation’s best defenders and one of the nation’s best goalkeepers going into this season and still were a few spot kicks away from making it into the final eight. People have come to expect the Golden Eagles to be a perennial contender in the Big East, but few likely gave them short odds on advancing so far in the Big Dance. Markus Roeders’ side were quick learners after getting pounded by Duke and North Carolina in the regular season and ended up the class of the Big East come league play. They handled the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament with aplomb before running into BYU on Saturday. If the Milwaukee side wants to defend their league crown, they’ve got some work to do with the loss of four starters to graduation this offseason, including defensive bulwark Ally Miller. The emergence of the promising Amanda Engel in goal has stabilized that situation though, while the offense should be one of the league’s best with Taylor Madigan and Maegan Kelly returning to terrorize defenses around the Big East. If a promising recruiting class pans out right off the bat, these Golden Eagles could be right back here next season with another shot at moving on to the Elite Eight.
-The “baby” part of the “Baby Irish” nickname that’s been attached to this year’s youthful Notre Dame side likely needs to go by the wayside after yet another upset in the NCAA Tournament by the Big East side. Florida was the second straight opponent with vastly more experience on the books to be put down by the Irish in a wildly successful weekend for the former national champs. As has been the case so often this year, Notre Dame found great success of set pieces, with the eventual game winner coming off the one and only corner they won on the day. Rebecca Twining knocked in Brittany Von Rueden’s service with a diving header to give UND a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Going the other way, the Irish gave up a ridiculous amount of corner kicks, but their defense of said corners was nothing short of spectacular, with Florida not producing much from those set pieces. Despite ceding a good deal of possession to the Gators, the Irish were able to weather the storm, and once Lauren Bohaboy put the second goal on the board with a little under twenty minutes to play, it was all over, with Florida scarcely threatening down the stretch. The offense hasn’t been all that consistent this season (as you might expect with so many youngsters), but the fact remains that Notre Dame is getting goals consistently, even if they are from plenty of different sources. You suspect though that UND can’t do as much bending defensively as they did here when they play Florida State. This Irish team has been all about raising the bar this year however, and they could well make the Seminoles their third straight upset victim on Friday.
-If you want the Reader’s Digest version of my thoughts on Florida, you can read the above section on Virginia and get the gist of it. The Gators have been perennial NCAA Tournament underachievers for a while now, and this season ended in another underwhelming display, as they fell to a youthful Notre Dame side on home turf. Florida’s failing was as it has been so many other times over the years, specifically a lack of cutting edge in front of goal. Despite a solid amount of possession and nearly outshooting the Irish by a 2:1 ratio in the first half, UF only put two of those shots on goal and failed to breach the Notre Dame goal. The pendulum swung the visitors’ way in the second half, and Florida all but wilted, with just a single shot on goal in the final half-hour despite being down by one and then two goals. The Gators won an inordinate number of corner kicks but did very little with them, another fatal flaw against a team that was stifling the production of clear cut chances in the run of play. The window on Florida challenging for national honors in the immediate term appears to have closed for the time being, with the likes of Erika Tymrak, Kathryn Williamson, and Holly King graduating. While there’s still talent on the roster, the club’s recruiting class at the moment doesn’t appear as strong as in years’ past in Gainesville, meaning it could be a little bit of a rebuilding effort instead of a straight reload. In any case, matching the level of opportunity this year’s squad had might take a few years for the Gators.
-Any lingering concerns that Florida State’s somewhat uneven performance against Texas Tech in Friday’s second round performance would carry over into their Sweet Sixteen showdown against Texas A&M were put to bed about twenty-two minutes into said match when FSU took a 2-0 lead. The Noles would continue to roll in the second half, tacking on two more goals to complete a decisive rout of the SEC side and advance to the Elite Eight. Tiffany McCarty’s incredible offensive form continued in earnest, as the senior scored her eighth goal of the postseason, an astonishing feat considering she scored just seven in the regular season and has now scored in every one of FSU’s postseason games. The Noles also got a goal and an assist from Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who has also been a key component in the attack playing right behind McCarty in the 4-2-3-1. The scoring was kicked off by German Isabella Schmid, which was significant in that it was the first time she’s seen action since the win over Boston College in the ACC Tournament. The defensive midfield spot she’s occupied beside Tiana Brockway has been a bit of a revolving door since she’s been out, and her return only adds to the strength this FSU side can wield. The Noles managed hold A&M’s entire starting lineup without a shot on goal, with two of the three the SEC side did put on goal coming from Kelley Monogue, who started off the bench for the Aggies. This was as impressive a display as any side has made in the NCAA Tournament thus far, and a few more like this in the next few weeks could have the Seminoles raising the College Cup in San Diego.
-Texas A&M fans have been waiting for their club to break through and join the elite for quite some time now. Another season gone, and they’re still waiting, as the Aggies bowed out at the last sixteen against FSU. While it would’ve been a notable upset had A&M come out of Tallahassee with the win, the manner of the loss was probably more damaging than the actual result itself. The Aggies dug themselves a sizable hole early on and didn’t come close to digging their way out of it, with their closest shave with goal likely Chelsea Jones’ shot that hit the bar late in the first half. A club that had been stuck at the second round stage for a few years can take heart in going one round better this year, but the club’s woes away from home in this competition continued, while some will point out their path to the Sweet Sixteen was eased by Oakland’s upset of Ohio State in the opening round. There’s more firepower over the horizon in the club’s latest impressive recruiting class, but you could argue more work is needed in defense and midfield given their Sweet Sixteen display. This club isn’t about to go away in the race for SEC silverware, but it remains to be seen whether 2013 will be the year they can finally put it all together and make a concerted run towards the latter stages of the Big Dance.
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