1. Can Kristen Mewis Avoid Falling Into The Clutches Of Mariah Nogueira?
Finding a way through Stanford’s defense often starts with trying desperately to avoid the massive presence of Mariah Nogueira in the middle. While Nogueira definitely captured the headlines on Friday with her headed goal to give Stanford the lead against South Carolina, it’s her deadly defensive work that gives opposing teams’ fits. Boston College’s undisputed #1 weapon in attack is midfielder Kristen Mewis who has taken much of the scoring load upon her shoulders given the inconsistencies of her fellow attackers. But to minimize Nogueira’s impact, it might be up to BC coach Alison Foley to move Mewis into a more advanced position on the pitch. Then again, Stanford’s backline isn’t anything to sneeze at either.
2. Can Boston College Find The Next Gear To Compete With Stanford?
Let’s be honest, it’s going to be a real ask for anyone to topple Stanford in the Card’s latest form. But if Boston College plays like they did against Cal, where they put one, ONE shot on goal en route to a shootout win, they could be sent pacing back to Newton in brutal fashion. The Eagles’ offense has been all over the place this season, with Kristen Mewis the only Eagle with more than five goals. That might mean that BC will have to get it done with defense, hoping to do the near impossible and stifle the Stanford attack. Jillian Mastroianni will be as vital as ever for the Eagles’ hopes. The senior star in goal helped get BC here with her shootout heroics. She’ll have to have another big game if the Eagles are to pull the upset.
3. Will Niemeier Be Able To Win The Duel With Hodak?
It’s certainly a question that didn’t seem all that logical about a month ago when Maryland looked dodgy to win one game much less two in the Big Dance and Oklahoma State were still easing Annika Niemeier back into action after a hamstring injury. But Domenica Hodak’s been a big factor in Maryland getting to this point as a shutdown defensive midfielder, while the German midfielder Niemeier has saved some of her best form for last as she tries to end her college career with a bang. Not too many midfielders put on a show at Hodak’s expense though, and OSU might need to find another outlet for midfield creativity and attacks if Hodak locks onto Niemeier.
4. Can The Maryland Attack Find A Way Through The Oklahoma State Defense?
Though Maryland’s got a great shot at shutting down at least one facet of the OSU offense through Hodak, what of them actually breaching the Cowgirls’ formidable defense? Oklahoma State was able to befuddle Illinois with a combo of strong marking and some brilliant saves by Adrianna Franch in goal. Maryland’s offense has been a beat of a scattershot attack to say the least, with five players tallying at least five goals but none having more than eight. While Olivia Wagner leads the team with those eight goals, the real joker in the pack might be Hayley Brock. Though Brock has only started five matches, she has the real match winning prowess that could push this Terps team over the top. The problem is that she’s not exactly the most consistent player Maryland has (and that’s being kind). At their best, Maryland’s offense certainly could give OSU’s defense problems. Whether they’ll be at their best in Stillwater on Sunday is anybody’s guess.
5. Hayes or Stengel…?
It’s quite possibly the marquee matchup of the round and perhaps the tournament to this point. Sunday’s showdown in Winston-Salem will feature the nation’s leading scorer in Maya Hayes and Wake Forest’s Katie Stengel, who perhaps would’ve been up there with her had she not been slowed by a midseason injury. There’s been little slowing Hayes down this season, as the sophomore’s exploded for a stunning twenty-nine goals as she’s lifted Penn State’s offense to great heights. Getting to thirty or more in the process of beating Wake Forest to get the club to the Elite Eight would make this season even sweeter for Hayes. But Stengel’s been slowly rounding into form after some rough stretches in the middle of the ACC season, including the injury that cost her some time. Against a tough BU team, Stengel notched eight shots and finished with a goal and an assist to help power the home side to victory. It’s a star-studded showdown on Sunday afternoon, with two top notch strikers hoping to ensure their team keeps on playing through Thanksgiving.
6. …or Nuzzolese, or Nairn, or Schaefer…
Despite the headlines going into their Sweet Sixteen clash being dominated by the teams’ big scoring threats, it’d be foolish to assume that either Penn State or Wake Forest are just one trick ponies. Wake Forest can call upon Rachel Nuzzolese to provide added scoring punch, the sophomore looking stronger and stronger up front as she continues to make it all the way back from an ACL injury. Though the vast, vast majority of Wake’s goals come from Stengel and Nuzzolese, they also have the habit of getting the odd big goal from all over the pitch. Penn State’s electrifying offense is more than just Hayes as well. Christine Nairn is capable of the occasional goal though she’s been found more often at the controls in midfield this year. Ali Schaefer came on strong in Big Ten play and could be key in this game in attack as well. That’s because the status of second leading scorer Taylor Schram is still uncertain. The sophomore missed Friday’s game due to a concussion, and it’s not clear whether she’ll be available for this third round clash.
7. Can UCF Stop The Carolina Machine?
North Carolina’s been in frightening form so far this NCAA Tournament. William & Mary, after being thought of as a team that could give the Heels problems, crumbled in the face of second half UNC pressure. Baylor barely got started before the Heels buried them in an avalanche of goals. Will it be any different on Sunday against Central Florida? To the casual observer, it might seem that UNC would just be squashing another mid-major. But that mid-major was pretty darn effective in slowing down a Penn State offense that shellacked so many this season. And the Golden Knights didn’t exactly cave in the face of Florida, did they? Amanda Cromwell’s side certainly has a puncher’s chance against Carolina, her team a group that seems to excel when confronted with top opposition. The challenge doesn’t get any bigger than UNC in November though, and the Golden Knights will still have to play the game of their lives to emerge with a shock win.
8. Will Rested Legs Reap Rewards for UNC?
It’s not a difficult equation. North Carolina got to rest players in their blowout win over Baylor, needing just one player to go the full ninety and playing just two more even an hour. It was a far different story for UCF. They had five players (including keeper Aline Reis) go all ninety minutes, with all but one of their starters going at least an hour. North Carolina’s generally a much deeper team than UCF anyway, so the fatigue factor could play a major role in this Sweet Sixteen showdown. If UCF finds itself chasing the game down the stretch, it could be real trouble for the Golden Knights.
9. Can Virginia Tech Win If They Don’t Score First?
Virginia Tech would probably like to forget their last encounter with Virginia as soon as possible, but there were certainly lessons to be learned from that 4-0 drubbing in Charlottesville. Specifically, that playing from behind is not the best of ideas against this UVA team. More specifically, Virginia Tech isn’t really a team that excels by playing from behind in the first place. While the Hokies will run and fight until they drop, they’re still a team with just three players with more than three goals, with one of those being super sub Shannon Mayrose and another midfielder Kelly Conheeney. Against UVA’s smothering defense which limited Washington State to just one shot on Friday, going behind would be a massive detriment to VT’s hopes of advancing to the Elite Eight. But if Tech were to strike first…
10. Can Virginia Repeat Their Regular Season Mastery of The Hokies?
…then it might not be so clear cut for the Cavs. Remember, this is a Virginia Tech team that took early leads on West Virginia and Texas A&M, two clubs with high powered offenses comparable to Virginia’s, and did not buckle under the pressure. Somewhere in the back of Tech’s mind though has to be the 4-0 beating they took in the regular season at the hands of UVA. It’s not that VT just lost to the Cavs, it’s that Virginia scored some of the more ridiculous goals you’re likely to see in the process. Virginia’s barely had to break a sweat through two rounds of the Big Dance, and while you’d envision it being a lot harder against a team more familiar with them, an early goal could be a serious blow to Virginia Tech’s psyche.
11. Will The Noles Be Able To Slow Down Christine Exeter?
But more appropriately, if FSU does slow the Canadian powerhouse down, would it even phase Louisville? OK, it probably would, but despite the sophomore helping lead the charge forward these past two rounds, Exeter hasn’t scored a point in either of the Cardinals’ first two NCAA Tournament wins. And that’s a scary thought for opposing defenses, specifically Florida State’s. The Cardinals have won two matches impressively without their offensive talisman lighting up the scoreboard. If Exeter does start finding the back of the net, this Cardinals team becomes that much more dangerous. Perhaps even dangerous enough to shock the establishment and make it to Kennesaw.
12. Can Louisville Halt FSU’s Attacking Charge?
Of course, making it all the way to the College Cup in the Peach State is going to entail Louisville finding some way to stop a Florida State offense which is looking more and more dynamic with each match. The Noles were downright frightening going forward against Samford and could have wiped out the Bulldogs by many, many goals had Alyssa Whitehead not stood on her head in goal. FSU put in another strong offensive performance against Portland though, despite Tiffany McCarty having a relatively subdued night with just a single shot on goal. The Noles were lifted by the performances of senior Janice Cayman and Dagny Brynjarsdottir, both senior internationals for their country, and both so important for FSU’s cause in the NCAA Tournament. Brynjarsdottir in particular is a massive difference maker for the Seminoles. The team was notedly different without her in the lineup when she was away with Iceland on EURO Qualifying duty this season. She has real starring potential and is just a freshman, meaning the best is likely to come. In concert with McCarty, the international duo makes for a deadly trio, more than capable of giving Louisville’s defense fits on Sunday.
13. Can Long Beach State Possibly Stop Stephanie Ochs?
Lord, can anyone stop Ochs at the moment? It’s a little odd to be talking about a player that hasn’t scored a goal in well over a month in such reverent tones, but then again, Ochs hasn’t been just any player down the stretch. The senior has been an unstoppable assist machine for the Toreros. Ochs now has assists on San Diego’s last six goals. Goals which first helped the team lift a share of the WCC title and then helped them advance to Sunday’s Sweet Sixteen. She’s also sunk two penalties from the fifth round slot in both shootout wins for San Diego thus far. Notably though, in the first meeting of these two teams, a 1-0 win for Long Beach State, Ochs (and her teammates for that matter) was held without a point as San Diego was shutout by the 49ers. But that was a whole different USD team. One not playing with the confidence and momentum that the Toreros are right now. Could LBSU stop Ochs? Yes, they can. But who in their right mind would bet against the senior forward at the moment?
14. Which Goalkeeper Will Step Up Big On Sunday in Westwood?
It’s been a marvelous few weeks for the two goalkeepers on display on Sunday in Los Angeles. Kaitlyn Gustaves of Long Beach arguably had the performance of the first round as she kept Pepperdine at bay with a long string of saves to enable Nadia Link to fire the Beach into the second round. Courtney Parsons of San Diego was arguably the star of the second round of the NCAA Tournament as she made six saves to stop UCLA and then made four saves in the shootout to power her side to the spot kick victory. With both netminders likely riding big waves of confidence into their Sweet Sixteen matchup, we could be in for another dazzling display in between the pipes from either or even both. Parsons has the longer and more consistent track record of excellence in goal, but Gustaves has already shown big match ability in the past few weeks with the Big West Tournament final clean sheet followed by a similar effort against Pepperdine and then Miami (FL) on Friday.
15. Can Ohio State’s Defense Stop Duke’s Front Four?
The Buckeyes’ defense’s stock has been rising these past few weeks after some impressive performances in the face of challenging opponents. Tennessee came into their first round clash with a dynamic and threatening offense but were mostly tamed by OSU. Milwaukee entered Friday’s meeting with OSU with one of the best forwards in the nation in Sarah Hagen. Hagen certainly got her shots off, tabling seven in total but couldn’t hit the target, her lone strike on frame being the late free kick goal. The rest of Hagen’s teammates were effectively erased by the Buckeyes. But stopping Duke’s offense is a whole different matter entirely. The Blue Devils have a deadly front four, with Kelly Cobb, Mollie Pathman, and Laura Weinberg mauling back fours across the nation. If somehow OSU can solve that riddle, they also have to deal with Kaitlyn Kerr pulling the strings from midfield, with the knowledge that she can also score with aplomb. It’s a massive challenge for OSU coach Lori Walker and her side, but they’ve been meeting massive challenges for the past few weeks with great success.
16. Can the Buckeyes’ Offense Power On Again?
We should’ve known that Ohio State’s rather impressive performance in carving open a sieve-like Tennessee defense in the first round was going to be the exception rather than the rule. The Buckeyes were back to their high volume, not-so-accurate shooting against Milwaukee on Friday which likely had coach Lori Walker wanting to tear her hair out times. Tiffany Cameron might have summed the day up in a nutshell, getting off seen shots, but only putting one on goal. OSU only managed six shots on goal from twenty-one overall, but they still managed to break the door down with a pair of goals in the end. It’s safe to say the Buckeyes are going to have to look a lot more like the team from the first round than the second round in front of goal if they’re to pull the upset against Duke on Sunday. They probably aren’t going to get a plethora of chances against the Blue Devils, meaning they better make those that do come their way count.