(1) Virginia vs (10) Virginia Tech – 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech is all that stands between Virginia and a previously unthinkable accomplishment. Most felt that the ACC title battle would be a war of attrition that would go down to the wire. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that few, if any, prognosticators could foresee anyone going perfect in thirteen league games. I doubt that Virginia was on anyone’s minds as said runaway champions either, as the Cavs were likely thought of as another quality side with College Cup ambitions but a juggernaut? It’s the reality though, as UVA has seen off every challenge thrown in its direction, aiming to finish the regular season, 19-0-0. The pulsating win over Notre Dame seems like ancient history now, with the club having not given up a goal in the five matches since, which includes wins over Wake Forest, North Carolina, and most recently, Florida State. The 1-0 margin of victory over FSU flattered the vanquished Seminoles, who managed just one off-target shot over the course of ninety plus minutes of regulation and extra time. FSU did manage to hold the dynamic duo of Makenzy Doniak and Brittany Ratcliffe to one combined shot on goal, but in the end, it was unheralded but uber-talented defensive midfielder Annie Steinlage who netted one of the season’s biggest goals for UVA, finishing from twelve yards not a minute into extra time. It was a goal that ensured the Cavs come into this one with a shot at ACC perfection, which is really all the home side have to play for at this point on Thursday night, other than bragging rights. The regular season title is in the bag, as is a #1 seed unless the selection committee drops the ball. Really, this one’s all about the history books, and it’d take a brave soul to bet against a UVA side that’s had Virginia Tech’s number historically.
Virginia Tech will be looking for just their third win over their in-state rivals and their first since 2009, when the Hokies won 2-1 on Klockner Field. The Hokies haven’t scored in the four meetings since, all of which have been pretty lopsided beatdowns from the Cavs. This Hokies side looks to be a cut above previous incarnations though, and it’s going to take something special for the home side to blow this VT side out. The Hokies were likely still smarting from a 2-1 defeat to Florida State on home soil last Thursday, snapping a four match win streak and nine match unbeaten streak in the league that had driven the side up the ACC table. Miami (FL) proved to be a very tough out on Senior Day for the Hokies, as a game of missed opportunities for both sides swung VT’s way after they successfully guarded a 1-0 lead the club had earned on an early Murielle Tiernan goal. It was the Hokies’ fifth one-goal win in the ACC and ninth clean sheet of the year, both impressive marks for Chugger Adair’s side and a big reason why they’ll host an ACC Tournament quarterfinal on Sunday. They could end up anywhere between second and fourth in the final table, with avoiding a potential semi-final rematch against the Cavs in the ACC Tournament a pretty big carrot dangling in front of them, though there’s far more beyond that to play for. The Hokies are still in the mix for a top two seed and beating the perfect UVA side would be an enormous feather in their cap come Selection Monday. Oh, and there’s the simple matter above of trying to tip the balance of this derby back in their favor. The veterans on this side likely have not forgotten the beatings suffered at the hands of the Cavs and will be keen to repay the favor on Thursday night in this highly anticipated showdown.
(22) Minnesota vs (55) Illinois – 3:00 PM
The near-term future for Illinois is pretty clear if they want to go dancing this season. Win and win often down the stretch. With the win over Louisville at the beginning of the season really the only impactful win on their resume, the Illini need to log some Ws between now and Selection Monday if they want to make the field. They aren’t doing so great in the computer numbers, and you have to believe they may need more than one win to crack the bracket. Of course, a win over a side like Minnesota could certainly help their cause, such is the Gophers’ computer numbers right now. Illinois surely faced doom if they didn’t beat Michigan State last Sunday but held their nerve at home after two straight multiple goal losses, topping the Spartans by a 2-0 count. The offense didn’t exactly have its most efficient showing, but Jannelle Flaws was still able to set the program single season goal record with a luscious free kick in the eighty-fourth minute to ice it after Allie Osoba had given the club the go-ahead goal in the eightieth minute. The defense did a good job of keeping MSU’s offense quiet all day, while the offense at least finished when it counted. Vanessa DiBernardo made a Senior Day start before being lifted shortly after kick-off, which isn’t exactly the most promising sign going forward, with the senior still recovering from a sprained knee. As long as Flaws keeps scoring, Illinois has a shot at beating almost anyone though. Opponents Minnesota are hardly the most consistent side, but Illinois will have to put that in the back of their mind, as they need three points to guarantee a Big Ten Tournament spot. Anything less, and they might have to deal with the ignominy of not being in the event they’re hosting. Couple that with likely missing the NCAA Tournament in that case, and it’d make for a bitter end to the season for Janet Rayfield’s side.
Minnesota basically locked up their NCAA Tournament spot with two clutch away wins last weekend, downing Wisconsin and Purdue to bring a little consistency to their league campaign that had seen them not put together two same results since two defeats at the beginning of league play back in September. As has been the case for much of the year, Minnesota’s defense gave up a metaphorical ton of chances to the opposition. Thirteen shots on goal to be exact, but star goalkeeper Tarah Hobbs added to her rapidly growing reputation with twelve saves to keep her side on top. The offense didn’t necessarily light it up, but Simone Kolander served up a pair of crosses that Katie Thyken punched in to give the Gophers the two goals they’d need to seal the three points. Hobbs is going to have to be at her best again with the deadly Jannelle Flaws on the prowl for the Illini in this one. Minnesota has been living dangerously and coming out on top for much of the season, but there’s always the risk for a hammering as long as the club keeps giving up a litany of opportunities to the opponent. Minnesota’s offense has only scored multiple goals twice in the league as well, meaning they aren’t necessarily equipped to run and gun with opponents either. But with Hobbs’ tremendous performances in goal, you get the sense that anything could be possible for this Minnesota side. To a certain degree. That includes grabbing another three points on Thursday, with the home side keen to lock up their spot in the Big Ten Tournament to go along with a likely NCAA Tournament bid.
(37) Georgia vs (12) Florida – 6:30 PM
Their NCAA Tournament hopes successfully resurrected after two wins on the road, Georgia will try to make it all the way back by raining on Florida’s SEC title parade on Thursday night. Seemingly toast after a brutal stretch of one win in six that pushed them all the way off the bubble, Georgia probably needed six points from six during their final regular season road trip to get themselves back into contention. To their credit, the Bulldogs did just that, taking advantage of fading LSU and Arkansas sides to clinch their spot in the SEC Tournament and vault itself back onto the right side of the bubble. Against Arkansas on Sunday, they scored directly from a Madeline Barker corner kick and weathered a Lady Razorback storm, clearing a pair of balls off the line and holding firm to walk away with three priceless points. Realistically, Georgia’s not out of the woods yet though. While the Bulldogs are just barely removed from lifting themselves out of the bubble entirely, their fortunes are decidedly uncertain if they end up there come Selection Monday. They have exactly one quality result on their resume: the win over South Carolina at the beginning of league play. Is that enough to get them in? It depends on who’s on the bubble with them, but with the likes of Washington, Butler, and Oklahoma State all nipping at the heels of the bubble, the Bulldogs would be well served to cause a shock on Thursday night. The rivalry between Georgia and Florida has been decidedly one-sided, with the home side having beaten the Gators just once in the regular season (and once in the postseason), back in 2007. Needless to say, a positive result here would punch the Athens side’s NCAA Tournament ticket. Stopping the runaway train that Florida has been over the past month is much easier said than done, however.
That Florida side knows a win on Thursday will guarantee at least a share of the SEC title and guarantees them a #1 seed in the SEC Tournament. Since losing two straight earlier this league season, Florida has been unstoppable, winning six in a row and not conceding in that streak. The Gators were able to take their SEC title fate into their own hands last Sunday against Texas A&M, just two days after killing off the demons of the team’s failures in Knoxville historically, trouncing the Lady Vols, 3-0. Against the Aggies, the match lay precariously balanced for the first half, but the Gators began to exert their will in the second stanza, getting their just reward as Savannah Jordan continued her torrid pace with two goals in the span of eleven minutes to put the game beyond the College Station side. Jordan was nigh-unstoppable up front for the Gators, putting a whopping six shots on goal, or one more than Texas A&M had in ninety minutes combined. Jordan continues to make a case for herself as one of the nation’s top forwards, but it’s the defense that’s been impenetrable for the Gators during this winning streak. They’ve now kept six straight clean sheets and won five of those games by multiple goals, becoming the model of efficiency in the SEC. From sinking towards the bubble, Florida’s made a spectacular rise up the rankings and now finds itself making a late, hard charge for a top two seed. I don’t know how likely it is considering the club still hasn’t beaten anyone in the uRPI Top 20, but winning out would certainly give their claim for such a seed some major weight. Derbies aren’t predictable affairs though, and Florida would do well to not overlook their opponents, who have much to play for and see the Gators as a big scalp to claim.
(3) North Carolina vs (27) Duke – 7:00 PM
Never mind the chaos that a derby game on Halloween in Chapel Hill is likely to induce. Nor the fact that Duke is probably going to the ACC Tournament unless there’s a confluence of just the wrong results below them. This is North Carolina vs Duke, and the latter’s inability to beat the former is still a very annoying craw sticking in the Blue Devils’ side, especially the senior class, who helped transform the club into what it is today. Duke hasn’t beaten their rivals from up the road since 2005 and are a staggering 2-35-1 against the Tar Heels historically. 2013 would seem to be as good a time as any to break that losing streak. After looking like a dead team walking for the better part of September, Duke has righted the ship after a fateful 4-1 loss to Boston College, going 4-0-1 since. True, matches against sides like NC State and Pittsburgh have helped the bottom line, but this was a club that wasn’t in a position to quibble about where the wins were going to come from after that BC loss. The 6-3 win against Pittsburgh really flattered the defeated visitors, as the Blue Devils were up 6-0 after forty minutes and probably could’ve scored as many as they wanted if they so chose. Pittsburgh scored three goals in the final ten minutes, but there was no doubting Duke’s dominance on the day. In a sense, it’s going to be interesting to see if the Blue Devils can find that extra gear they used to beat Notre Dame in South Bend after two easier contests that followed. The return of Meghan Thomas in goal from injury has helped steady the defense to an extent, though Duke still has kept just two clean sheets in their last eleven. That defense is going to have to dig deep though, as the Blue Devil attack has been volatile in nature and consistency throughout. On the road and against a tough opponent, Duke’s best hope may be for a smash and grab victory rather than a protracted battle of firepower.
While North Carolina can rise as high as second in the final league table with a win and help elsewhere, the Heels don’t exactly have much to gain with a win, other than the joy of downing their rivals yet again. Except perhaps for the chance to avoid Virginia potentially until the ACC Tournament final, though again, much of that will depend on what Virginia Tech and Florida State do on Thursday night. A home quarterfinal in the ACC Tournament is already in the bag, with a #1 seed also likely already in their possession. UNC may be looking to keep momentum swinging their way after two straight wins though. Anson Dorrance’s side needed a response after the 2-0 defeat to Virginia a few weeks ago and got it last week with two wins on the trot over Clemson and Wake Forest. North Carolina would actually get a shock to the system against the Demon Deacons last Sunday, going down inside of the half-hour mark to a Riley Ridgik screamer, leaving the Heels behind 1-0 at the break. UNC would keep ratcheting up the pressure in the second half though, getting their reward early in the period when Crystal Dunn turned in Summer Green’s cross. Despite dominating the second half, UNC would have to wait until extra time for a winner, with Kealia Ohai making good to deliver the Heels three points. Dunn and Ohai scoring in a big win seems somewhat fitting for a club whose hopes of retaining the national title rest on the gifted shoulders of their two senior attacking talismans. It certainly isn’t worth discounting the assists from the inconsistent Summer Green and rookie Amber Munerlyn though. Or the defense that held Wake to three shots on the day. As long as the supporting cast is doing their part, UNC is going to be a challenge for anyone and everyone in the country. Dorrance will be hoping to turn Chapel Hill into a house of horrors for the visiting Blue Devils on Thursday night as the party takes root outside the gates of Fetzer Field.
(17) South Carolina vs (26) Kentucky – 7:00 PM
Two sides clinging to the scantest of SEC title hopes will try to walk away with three points and hope for a mathematical miracle on Thursday night. The home side go into this regular season finale hoping to keep their perfect home record in 2013 intact, having gone 9-0-0 at the Graveyard thus far this season. After a hiccup that included a loss at Missouri and draw with Ole Miss that likely cost them the title, the Gamecocks have rebounded with wins at bottom dwellers Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to keep their fleeting title hopes alive. The victories also kept the Gamecocks’ hopes of a national seed alive, and that could mean the world to SC given their success at home this year. On the road at a stubborn Mississippi State side, South Carolina dominated the run of play and held the opposition to just two shots on goal but again found themselves unable to put the ball in the back of the net. It’d take until the seventy-first minute in a physical, attritional game for Sophie Groff to come in with the winner, the reserve netting her second of the season to give a little relief to the Gamecocks. It was a must-win game for South Carolina on multiple fronts, and the Gamecocks managed to squeak it out in the end. They’ll be hoping for a much easier time on Thursday against a Kentucky side that should provide a much sterner test. The defense, which has been excellent all season, will face a real challenge in stopping the likes of Arin Gilliland and Zoe Swift, while the temperamental offense will hope to fire true in the regular season finale. Don’t count on this potentially being the only meeting between these two sides, who have enough quality to make runs in Orange Beach as well.
Kentucky finds itself on the periphery of the discussion for a national seed, and with results against Louisville and West Virginia looking better and better as the season goes along, the Wildcats will be hoping victory at South Carolina proves to be just the ticket they need for that seed. UK hasn’t exactly been the most consistent of sides over the past few weeks though, alternating wins and losses through the past five games to seriously curb their league title hopes. The good Kentucky showed up against LSU last Sunday though, leading to a 3-1 win in Lexington over the fading Tigers. LSU went up early in the second half through Rebecca Pongetti but were drowned under a crush of three UK goals in the span of ten minutes, with Gilliland and Swift hitting first before Alex Carter added a late coup de grace for the Wildcats. That’s not to say there aren’t still worries for the Wildcats. Stuart Pope joined the club’s injury list, and without Courtney Raetzman already, the midfield looks more functional than dynamic at this point. UK was already depending on their front three for much of the creativity, and they might have to lean even more on that trio going into the postseason. South Carolina have proven to be very difficult to break down this season, and the Wildcats can’t afford an off night on Thursday if they’re to emerge with three points. Their title hopes are probably nil at this point, but they still have plenty to play for, with a national seed very much up for grabs in these final games.
(6) Florida State vs (25) Notre Dame – 8:00 PM
Florida State will be hoping that they can hold down the fort against Notre Dame without Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Megan Campbell with their respective national teams on World Cup Qualifying duty. Considering the two are arguably part of the league’s elite at their positions, it’s going to make a tough task even tougher for the Noles. Needing a win to guarantee themselves second place in the final league table, FSU will also know that results elsewhere could drop them down to fourth, setting up a potential ACC Tournament semi-final with Virginia. The Seminoles though are probably more interested in staying ahead in the race for the fourth #1 seed, with Virginia, UCLA, and North Carolina looking like mortal locks for the other three at this point. They’ll certainly need to play a better game than they did last Sunday when they were put through the motions by the Cavs in a 1-0 loss that did not fairly represent Virginia’s dominance. The Cavs outshot FSU 14-1 and held the Noles without a shot on goal, though the Tallahassee side also dragged the champs into extra time, where they were undone by a quick golden goal. FSU’s probably going to depend on their defense suffocating the Notre Dame attack, as without Brynjarsdottir in midfield, there aren’t really any sure things going forward. Losing the dangerous long throw of Campbell is also a big blow, as it made FSU absolutely deadly on dead ball situations. But any side with Kassey Kallman at the heart of the defense stands a good chance of prevailing, and the senior center-back will be looking to go out a winner at the end of the regular season for the Noles.
Notre Dame is fighting to stay within seed range, currently at the magic #25 spot that has traditionally been the cutoff for consideration for a seed. Should they stay there, the odds of them being seeded look pretty good, with a win at North Carolina and draw against Wake Forest working in their favor. The Irish have put a five match winless streak in the ACC in the rear view mirror with wins over Boston College and Clemson to start ascending in the RPI once again. In their winless stretch, Notre Dame scored just four goals in five games but have scored five in the past two wins. The Clemson game was a potential trap game considering the Tigers had their backs to the wall, but the Irish handled it confidently, getting goals in the early part of each half from Kaleigh Olmsted and Crystal Thomas proving the heroines. Lauren Bohaboy had a nice influence with three shots on goal and an assist, while the defense held firm for the first clean sheet the club’s kept since the win over Pittsburgh at the end of September. Though FSU will be shorthanded, the Irish still will have to bring their ‘A’ game going into a lion’s den in Tallahassee. Having won just one of their past four on the road in the league, Notre Dame will be weary of another fruitless road trip, but the Irish have also won at North Carolina this season, showing how much potential the club has when all the pieces are pulling in the same direction. A home match in the ACC Tournament may be out of reach, but a win over the Seminoles would be a huge step towards a national seed and perhaps a route towards a top two seed if the Irish can make a deep run in the competition starting Sunday.
(52) Washington vs (16) Stanford – 10:00 PM
It probably isn’t fun to be a Washington supporter with high blood pressure at the moment, as Washington’s NCAA Tournament fate has ebbed and flowed at a frightening rate as of late. The Huskies looked to be in a great position to make an unlikely comeback from their early struggles to make the at-large field when they drew with UCLA before beating Utah…and then the struggles started. One win in four has pushed UW back down the pecking order, while a weekend of draws at the Arizona schools pushed Washington off the bubble at last check. The Huskies are also just a game over .500, meaning they need at least one more win to guarantee themselves at-large bid eligibility. Normally, that’d be easy with three shots at it, especially at home, but when the opposition are Stanford, Cal, and Washington State, nothing is easy. The Huskies probably wish they could get their last game, a 2-2 draw with Arizona back. They had a 2-0 lead at the hour mark and led 2-1 with sixteen seconds left before being hit for an equalizer off a throw-in. It could be a potentially devastating result when all is said and done if UW misses out on the Big Dance. Still, given the level of opposition, UW may be just fine if they win one of their remaining three games. Stanford is certainly the biggest scalp left on the docket, and UW’s shown what they’re capable of against UCLA in that earlier draw. With Stanford seemingly getting a little bit of their groove back as of late, the Huskies are still going to have to battle fiercely for a result. There certainly can’t be any late capitulations like the previous game if UW is to advance its hopes for an NCAA Tournament spot.
You might want to cancel the funeral for Stanford’s College Cup hopes, as the Card have rebounded from three straight home losses to win three in a row to head back towards the upper realms of the Pac-12. OK, so wins over Utah and the two Oregon schools aren’t exactly going to get the heart rate racing, but this is a club that couldn’t be picky for wins after that shocking losing streak. The win over Oregon State perhaps resembled the Stanford of old, as Lo’eau LaBonta, Sydney Payne, and Alex Doll all hit the Beavers with a quick burst in the span of fifteen minutes to put Stanford up 3-0 by the half-hour mark. It’d finish 4-1, with the club putting up eleven shots on goal, the offense looking a lot more spry than it has for large chunks of the season. Consider, it was the first time the club had scored more than two goals in the league this season. Taylor Uhl remains out of favor, having not started since the UCLA loss, and one wonders if she’ll regain her starting role this year if the club continues to produce offensively. The transfer from Minnesota hasn’t scored in her role as a reserve since the UCLA game, and her continued power outage in front of goal can’t be helping the odds of her making a return to the first XI. The defense continues to be problematic, with the club having given up goals in six of their last seven. Boss Paul Ratcliffe rotated his keepers last week against OSU, starting Jane Campbell before turning to Sarah Cox in the second half. It’s a situation worth watching as the NCAA Tournament approaches. Stanford still has ambitions for a top two seed in said tournament, though they really need to run the table to stand a chance of that. If they can keep up their recent form, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.