NCAA Tournament – First Round Review

It was not a good weekend for the “big” little guy.

The proverbial big fishes in little ponds got dynamited by power conference schools in most cases, and in UCF’s case, a Saint John’s (NY) club that might now reside in a league with more prestige than the AAC after a woeful showing that saw all three qualifiers eliminated in the first round, much to the newly christened league’s humiliation. It was the Knights that probably ended up most red-faced after their first round exit. The Orlando side looked to be cruising after taking the lead in the eighteenth minute through Tatiana Coleman. It was all downhill from there for UCF. They conceded ninety-one seconds later and were down 2-1 to an own goal less than three minutes later. The finishing, that had been so good with a new look frontline, was wanting, the club being stymied by Diana Poulin in goal, along with their own wastefulness. Saint John’s (NY) were hardly adventurous but were indeed lethal in putting all three of their shots in the back of the net. These are the types of losses that can weigh on programs long-term. Head coach Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak had won plaudits for her work in her first year here, but how UCF responds in 2014 could be even more important.

The rest of the plight of the power clubs from smaller conferences ran the gamut of circumstance. A La Salle club that seemed to hit their ceiling this season were uninspiring in defeat against Georgetown. The Explorers were outshot in on goal attempts, 7-0, by a steadfast Hoya side that seemed to have all the answers for a vaunted La Salle side. Paul Royal’s side weren’t a disappointment on the whole this season, but it’s hard to escape a feeling of wanting more from a side with such talent on the pitch and the touchline. Denver found none of the magic in last year’s side on Saturday, with the Pioneers unable to top derby rivals Colorado for a second time in 2013. The earlier win flattered DU on the scoreline, but the Buffs still entered Saturday as underdogs. One must wonder how much rust accumulated on the Pioneers after toying with Summit League foes for the past month. CU was busy in battles with Pac-12 foes at the same time, and you have to ponder DU’s ultimate upside while treading water at the top of such a small conference. Colorado College were hard done by. The Tigers fought tooth and nail with a talented Duke side and looked to be on their way to a penalty shootout win when momentum in spot kicks lurched against them. They went a long way in answering questions about whether their record was a product of their schedule, but that’s likely no consolation at the moment.

The greater effect may be on future seeding. The committee went against precedent and gave Denver a seed, albeit one that really meant little other than home advantage against Colorado. It may be a long while before another seed is given to a club from a smaller conference.

Other Notes:

-The less said about Wake Forest’s win over Morehead State the better. The Demon Deacons may be really short-handed going forward thanks to injuries, but three shots on goal against one of the competition’s weakest clubs? Credit the defense for doing their job and shutting MSU’s attack down, but it’s hard envisioning Wake making extended progress if the offense can’t find more traction. On this evidence, WF will be in trouble if they go behind against Penn State.

-College soccer bid farewell to both Christine Exeter and Charlyn Corral on Saturday as Louisville bowed out on penalties to Illinois State. The international duo helped propel the Cardinals to some dazzling wins over the past few years and helped cultivate a reputation for Louisville as a very exciting team going forward. Exeter had much to prove after a listless 2012 season and did so in most part, at least doing enough to make her a viable prospect for the next level at least. Whether she did enough to get a look in the NWSL is more uncertain, as allocation spots are sparse, and international spots are even rarer for rookies. There shouldn’t be any debate on Corral. She’s one of the most gifted players of this generation for Mexico. She’s a no-brainer to be allocated to some lucky side if she so chooses. The greater worry for NWSL clubs may be if she has European suitors, as was the case with Alina Garciamendez.

-The secret’s out. Illinois State’s Drew Roff has been simmering under the radar of many as one of the top coaching prospects in the nation thanks to his ever growing trophy haul with the Redbirds. Two more this year in the overmatched MVC were nice, but the one thing that’s really evaded ISU so far under Roff is a trip beyond the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Mission Accomplished. Illinois State hardly lucked into their second round berth despite advancing on penalties. You’d hardly count the Redbirds out against Michigan either. He already figures to be an in-demand boss, but another upset would send Roff’s coaching stock through the stratosphere.

-What in the world to make of Marquette? Other than the fact that their #2 seed may have been a bit in generous. The Golden Eagles had turned Valley Fields into a fortress, not losing on their home turf in over two seasons going into this one. But the club’s inability to put their chances away cost them in a very real way late, when Aubrey Sudomier scored a shock winner for Western Michigan. It’s difficult to argue that the Golden Eagles’ reputation didn’t take a major hit in the aftermath of this one. They’ll still be regarded as a powerhouse in the Big East, but they’ll need to do a whole lot to convince others they can be significant on the national stage again.

-Hat tip to Western Michigan. Head coach Nate Norman took over late before last season, and it showed in the final reckoning, as WMU endured a horrific season that left them starting at the lights, being KO’d by the MAC. WMU responded well this season but appeared to again suffer heartbreak, losing out on the league title on the final day of the season after losing to Eastern Michigan. But the Broncos picked themselves up and won the MAC Tournament, avenging that loss to Eastern Michigan. The Broncos’ growth as a program worth watching continued with the upset against Marquette. Nobody’s going to give them a shot in hell against Notre Dame. Then again, the same could probably be said before their shocking win against Marquette.

-Sometimes, one return from injury can make all the difference. And so it was for Kentucky, who got Courtney Raetzman back in midfield after the sophomore had missed most of the season through injury. In a match with two closely matched clubs, there was always the chance that such a boost was going to prove decisive, and so it was. Kentucky ran Ohio State ragged for much of the match in Lexington to notch their most impressive NCAA Tournament result ever. Raetzman adds some much needed dynamism to the midfield that had been lacking since Stuart Pope went down injured. They’ll still be massive underdogs against UCLA, but Raetzman’s return at least gives them a little more hope of shocking the world.

-Paul Ratcliffe could be accused of overthinking things in earlier seasons, but he clearly pushed the right tactical buttons in the first round win against an underrated Cal State Fullerton. The teething issues of Taylor Uhl adapting to the Card have been apparent, and with Uhl having been used as a mostly ineffectual substitute over the past month, one wondered how the Minnesota transfer would respond to finally being reinstated to the starting lineup. Quite fine as it turned out, putting up three shots on goal and scoring the match’s only goal. The decision to drag Chioma Ubogagu back into the midfield to wreak havoc with her dribbling also paid dividends, with the junior having four shots on goal as well. Just as important was the defensive effort, holding the Titans to just two shots on goal. They’ll need all the pieces to come together again on Friday if they’re to beat an in-form South Carolina side.

-South Carolina are saving some of their best for last. Though the club did lose in the SEC Tournament semi-finals to Texas A&M, they’ve been spot on for much of the rest of the last month. There was the win over Kentucky to close out the regular season that was crucial in sealing a national seed. There was avenging the regular season loss to Georgia in Orange Beach that also helped them net that national seed. And there was the first round NCAA Tournament shellacking of state rivals Furman, 5-0. The Paladins came into their meeting with no shortage of belief after a great league campaign. And then South Carolina smashed them. Bludgeoned them. Destroyed them. SC held Furman’s formidable offense to just a shot on goal while putting four past their opponents in the first half, including a couple off of corner kicks. The Gamecocks have always been strong defensively this season. If they can keep firing on offense? Look out.

-There was a time when Utah looked like a club on the fast road to nowhere. 2010, the club’s last in the Mountain West was a 5-15-1 disaster that nearly saw the Utes fall out of the RPI Top 200. They certainly didn’t look up for the challenge of moving to the Pac-12 a season later. Three years later, Utah looks pretty smart for their patience with Rich Manning, who has overseen three straight seasons of improvement in the RPI and a return to the NCAA Tournament this season. Third in the very tough Pac-12 was a just reward for the club’s efforts, and though they were beaten by Texas A&M in an almighty scrap, the arrow looks pointed way up for Utah again in the near future.

-Texas Tech turned in one of their best performances of the season against Minnesota in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, looking every much the polished performer most expected the Red Raiders to be before the season started. While they fell short of silverware in the Big XII, Texas Tech still came into this competition with the potential for multiple wins and showed why in easing beyond an overmatched Golden Gophers side. The offense was excellent, with Janine Beckie netting a brace, while full-back Jaelene Hinkle herself got involved with an assist on TTU’s third goal. The defense, so strong this season, did their part as well, limiting the Gophers to a single shot on goal in ninety minutes. It was a reassuring performance after the club fell in the semi-finals of the Big XII Tournament. It was also the kind of performance that has many believing the Red Raiders are capable of an upset against Texas A&M on Friday.

-Is it wrong to wonder what the big fuss was about when regarding the Jonelle Filigno era at Rutgers? The oft-injured Canadian missed the club’s first round penalty shootout loss to West Virginia on Saturday, save missing a penalty in the shootout. In her four seasons playing with the club, Rutgers won a grand total of one NCAA Tournament game, that coming last year against minnows Colgate. The Scarlet Knights probably aren’t going to fall into the tank, with a solid recruiting class coming in, but considering Filigno’s reputation, to have gotten so little out of it in postseason results has to be disappointing. Filigno herself faces an uncertain future as well. She seems likely to be allocated by John Herdman for a Canadian WNT desperate for some attacking depth, but her injury history is a massive red flag for potential suitors. Production-wise, Filigno’s accomplishments may be overstated as well. Though injuries and international duty obviously cut into her potential numbers, Filigno still scored just thirty-three goals in four seasons with the club, with that number becoming even less impressive when you consider eight of those were from the penalty spot. She may blossom at the next level, but I hardly think the Mississauga native is a sure thing.

-West Virginia probably put their fans through more stress than was healthy in the above shootout win over Rutgers. The former Big East rivals went hammer and tongs in a war of offensive attrition, with neither side able to find a winner in a hundred ten minutes. The Mountaineers have been stretched to their absolute bare bones by injuries, a fact that was plain for all to see on Saturday when the club had ten of their players go the distance, with just a pair of reserves being used off the bench. In the end, the offense, spearheaded by Frances Silva and Kelsie Maloney couldn’t find a way past Rutgers keeper Jessica Janosz, necessitating some heroics from Sara Keane in the shootout. The Mountaineers had the looks of a potential College Cup team before the season started and still looked like a side that could do some damage going into the Big Dance. But wars like this one take their toll, and against a deep side like Virginia Tech on opposing turf, West Virginia figures to be in tough again.

-Test passed. Santa Clara wasn’t done any favors in their opening round matchup despite earning a seed, being drawn against a Cal side who had already played SCU to a standstill in the regular season and who had had some success against the Broncos in previous NCAA Tournaments. So it was again in one sense, as the Broncos certainly didn’t pull away from their Pac-12 opponents, with shot counts and corner kicks finishing nearly even on the afternoon. SCU could have easily wilted under the bright lights after Cal equalized very early in the second half, but Jerry Smith’s side kept battling and netted the winner with a little over twenty minutes to play off the boot of red hot Sofia Huerta. The defense still looks a bit rocky but was bailed out by goalkeeper Andi Tostanoski a few teams. An obstinate Boston University probably doesn’t have the offense that Cal does, but it does pack a defense that has frustrated many this season, meaning SCU will face another tough challenge this weekend.

-If you want an example of what hitting the right international recruit can do for you as a program, you need only look at Ole Miss and Saint John’s (NY) for a few prime examples. Neither is probably going to be attracting the creme de la creme of domestic youth talent, meaning creative recruiting was always going to be essential in turning fortunes. The Rebels have flourished with Brazilian Rafaelle Souza as the crown jewel in their armada of attack, the senior fittingly breaking the school’s offensive records in the 9-0 drubbing of Jackson State on Friday. Souza has already left her mark on the college game, and the Brazilian figures to be in demand as a left-back either in the NWSL or for some suitor abroad. Saint John’s (NY)’s Rachel Daly missed out on last season due to compliance snafus with the NCAA but has made up for lost time by scoring early and often for the Red Storm this season. She still has a decent chance of ending up with the informal NCAA Golden Boot, and the Harrogate native looks like the centerpiece of a program back in the big time after some trying seasons. International recruits are never a guaranteed success, but when they work as they have in the two cases above, they can be transformative.

-Colby Hale’s all but walked on water with Arkansas in his two seasons at the helm thus far. The Lady Razorbacks’ boss made minor miracles happen by getting his side into the postseason at the first time of asking last year, but this year has been even more impressive. The club has avoided a second season syndrome induced slump and instead find themselves in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It can’t be understated how impressive it was for Arkansas to go on the road against a club with some postseason pedigree and walk away with a win, especially when you consider OSU appeared to be rounding into form after the Big XII Tournament final appearance. The team will likely be favored against Saint John’s (NY) and are tantalizingly close to the Sweet Sixteen. One has to wonder when this success may turn into a double-edged sword for the Lady Razorbacks though. Hale’s coaching star has risen meteorically the past two years, and I’m not quite sure Arkansas will be the terminus for his career.

-Duke did what Duke does in the early part of NCAA Tournaments as of late. Their shootout win over Colorado College wasn’t a thing of beauty by any means, but the Blue Devils kept on battling despite an almost darkly comic revolving door of players being forced off through injuries, including Rebecca Quinn being knocked out of the game with a potential concussion scarcely a minute into her return from injury. The offense was perhaps a bit too wasteful, and the defense is going to have to tighten up a great deal if they want to overcome Florida on Friday in Durham. But really, this Duke side has never lost its identity as a bunch of battlers, and it’d hardly be a surprise to see them walk away with another win under their belt after Friday against Florida.

-Say what you will about Nebraska’s form the past decade, the Huskers haven’t had any problems churning out top notch attacking players. Freshman Jaycie Johnson is the latest star off the conveyor belt, having scored four in the club’s first round win over Southeastern Louisiana this past weekend. The Huskers’ rookie has been clutch as well, with seven of her seventeen strikes going down as game winners. Though the club may be losing the services of Jordan Jackson after the season, the presence of both Johnson and Mayme Conroy next season should ensure the goals keep coming for the Huskers. The Nebraska faithful will be hoping they keep coming on Friday against an explosive Boston College team as well.

-I know the weather probably played a factor in chewing up Washington State’s pitch for their first round game against Illinois. But really, the field conditions both clubs had to play through were an embarrassment, turning the match into an impromptu mud bowl. Never mind the aesthetics, the possibility for injury with such deplorable field conditions is far too great. Here’s hoping that the grounds crew in Pullman is able to find an offseason solution to ensure nobody has to again endure what the home side and Illinois had to in future years.

-Her rookie season may not have necessarily been the most consistent, but Claire Wheatley more than showed her star potential in the shootout win for Illinois over Washington State in the first round. With the Illini offense scuffling in the poor field conditions, the club needed Wheatley to be on her toes in goal, and she did so, making eleven saves in normal and extra time before stopping a pair of shots in the shootout to lift her side to victory. In that sense, she continued the legacy of penalty stopping excellence that predecessor Steph Panozzo left Champaign with. A side with a vibrant offense but often shaky defense, Illinois was always going to need strong goalkeeping to contend for wins in the Big Dance. If Wheatley can again excel on Friday, Illinois might be in with a chance of upsetting a second team from the Pacific Northwest.

-Colorado’s return to the NCAA Tournament carried with it a certain degree of irony. The last time the Buffs were in the Big Dance, they were a seeded team and knocked out by South Dakota State in 2008, a defeat that triggered a brutal downhill slide that saw the club nearly slip out of the RPI Top 200 in 2011. A few years later, the Buffs are in the second round of the tournament, doing a little upsetting of their own by taking down seeded rivals Denver last weekend. For a club that was perilously close to missing out after winning just one of their last six in the regular season, CU acquitted themselves quite well against a Pioneers side that had beaten them 3-0 earlier in the year. They’ll be underdogs again against BYU, but that’s probably an afterthought in a season which they finally emerged from the wilderness.

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