For the longest time, Central Florida has been a program possessing great potential and a burdensome past. The home of former USWNT legend Michelle Akers and multiple trips to the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament a few decades ago, UCF has been searching endlessly for a route back to the glory days of the past. The search may have ended decisively on Sunday, something of an odd statement when you consider that the Golden Knights Sweet Sixteen result against North Carolina was technically a draw. But for a program that has been knocking on the door of the big time for the better part of a decade, that penalty shootout win was the sweet payoff for years of close calls and near misses in the postseason. UCF has proven plenty capable of beating just about anyone in the regular season, topping Florida State a few years ago and Penn State this season. But until this year, that success has not translated in the NCAA Tournament. All things considered, this might not have been the likeliest bunch of Golden Knights to smash through the glass ceiling. Their league form had been fitful, and UCF had gone down in the C-USA Tournament quarterfinals to an unfancied East Carolina side. But elite competition has a way of usually bringing out the best in this club, and so it was on Sunday. Amanda Cromwell’s side had no intention of parking the bus in Gainesville and battled tooth and nail with Carolina until scoring the opener in the second half. Most likely expected UCF to fold after the Tar Heels’ late equalizer, but the Conference USA side never swayed despite pressure from UNC. That will would not be broken by penalty kicks, and the Golden Knights held their nerve for a potential program changing result. With confidence surging after bouncing North Carolina and Florida before them, could another upset on Friday against Wake Forest be in the cards?
-…and So Does Amanda Cromwell
The recognition has been a long time coming for UCF coach Amanda Cromwell. One of the greats of the college game in her playing days at Virginia, Cromwell made an almost seamless transition into the coaching game, winning eight major trophies in her first five seasons with the Golden Knights. Despite raking in the silverware in Conference USA, the question though was when the Golden Knights were going to take the next step after coming into this season having been stopped at the NCAA Tournament second round for four straight seasons. But the team that took the pitch on Sunday was a fair reflection of their coach: tenacious and unrelenting. Despite facing storied opposition and being dealt a setback with UNC’s late equalizer, UCF kept coming and fighting and got their reward after spot kicks. Cromwell has long been tipped for great things in the college coaching game after more and more have taken notice of the scrappy contenders down in Florida, with the UCF boss seemingly tipped to make a move to a bigger club every offseason. But now so, more than ever, it looks like those great things might just be happening in Orlando with Cromwell masterminding the program’s ascent into the limelight.
-Aline Reis’ Big Day Out
There may never be anyone else quite like Aline Reis in the college game.
Hyperbolic? Maybe. But it may not be that far from the truth. Quick. How many Brazilians can you name plying their trade at the DI level? Not so many, huh? But that’s not even the most incredulous part of Reis’ rise to folk heroine for UCF over the past few days. The senior netminder, as you might’ve heard by now, stands at just 5’3″. That fact alone would have some coaches scrunching up their noses if Reis was a field player. For a goalkeeper in the modern era at this level, such a short stature is almost unimaginable. But Reis is a keeper of almost unimaginable talent for her size or for just about any size really. The Brazilian possesses aerial ability that even North Carolina players admitted they were taken by surprise with after the match. Despite her frame, Reis has a command of her area and a bravery in going for aerial balls that is seldom matched by the majority of her peers at the college level. Reflexes and shot stopping ability? Reis has that too as exhibited by her penalty stops in the shootout, including getting virtually parallel to the turf as she stopped the final Carolina penalty kick for the win. In this pundit’s eyes, the decision for the Brazilian WNT to not give Reis a closer look in recent seasons was foolish, and perhaps the UCF star could’ve made a difference in Germany this summer. Some might write off Reis taking the next step towards a potential professional and/or international career as one step too far due to her size (and previous injury issues). But as Reis has proven already time and time again in Orlando, counting her out is never a good bet.
-North Carolina’s Inexplicable Failure
UCF’s shocking penalty win will be spoken of for days but ultimately put aside in due time as the club aims to make further history against Wake Forest. It’s not going to be so easy for North Carolina, as this latest crushing setback may well be dissected for weeks and months ahead of the 2012 season, in isolation, or with Carolina’s trophyless season as a whole. It’s only the second time in the NCAA era that UNC’s gone without a major trophy. The other? 1985. That’s before the ACC began sponsoring soccer. It’s the second straight season in which Carolina was eliminated at the last sixteen, though this one will likely be harder to swallow, losing against UCF as opposed to Notre Dame last year en route to the Irish’s national title. The questions in the post-mortem of this season will be long, hard, and not easily answered in all likelihood. There will be questions about the switch to a 4-2-3-1 in the middle of the season and then back to a 3-4-3 later on. There will be questions of fitness and depth, the former cited by coach Anson Dorrance for a share of the team’s problems throughout the season, the latter cited by a vocal and impatient set of Carolina supporters who grew frustrated with the team’s relentless chopping and changing of personnel throughout matches. And there will be questions of the offense, a unit tied for seventy-third in the nation in goals heading into the NCAA Tournament and one of, if not the, lowest scoring UNC team of all-time. The last point is especially worrying, considering the Heels didn’t have a single player with more than six goals on the season, something that seems unfathomable given the history of the program. Unfortunately for the storied program, there are no easy answers to what felled them in 2011. And the questions may not fully go away until the team takes the pitch once more in 2012.
If the present for North Carolina is unbearable, the future is downright unpredictable for the equivalent of college soccer royalty. The team’s lack of progress through the NCAA Tournament for the past two seasons is disturbing on plenty of levels for Tar Heel supporters. The landscape in the ACC is hardly inviting for a rebuilding effort either. The lambs of the league have grown fangs, and this season’s conference campaign and performance in the NCAA Tournament is just a small indicator of what Anson Dorrance’s program is up against these days. Looking forward to next season though, it’s not like Carolina is going to fall off a cliff with losses to graduation. The only expected losses of starters are forward Courtney Jones, who was short of goalscoring form for much of the season, and goalkeeper Adelaide Gay, who likely wouldn’t have been starting had it not been for an early season injury to junior Hannah Daly. This team will still be able to boast two of the best players in the country in the form of midfielder Amber Brooks and jack-of-all-trades Crystal Dunn. There are numerous talented prospects like Meg Morris, Satara Murray, and Alyssa Rich who just need to avoid the injury bug and work their way into peak condition. And there’s the expected recruiting class for next season, tentatively featuring the nation’s top goalkeeping prospect, top forward prospect, and another pair of midfielders who have extensive youth international experience. It’s now a matter of coalescing that talent into a unit capable of bringing home titles that is the challenge facing Dorrance and his staff.
-Stengel Roars Again
It’s hard to fathom now, but there was a time this season when it was worth wondering if Wake Forest sophomore Katie Stengel had hit some kind of wall. After scoring at least one point in ten of her first eleven matches in 2011, Stengel went ice cold. Faced with ACC defenses, Stengel promptly went with just one point in her next nine matches, missing a pair of crucial contests through injury. But sometimes, it’s just a matter of hitting the target once to get back in form, and Stengel did so in the ACC Tournament final, scoring Wake Forest’s lone goal in the contest. Since, it’s been Stengel at her very best, with the Demon Deacon forward tallying at least a goal and an assist in each of Wake’s NCAA Tournament matches, with a pair of goals in the team’s 4-2 win over Penn State on Sunday. There can be no denying Stengel’s current form, the form that resembles the scoring monster that ran rings around overmatched defenses for the first month of the season. If that monster keeps roaring, Wake Forest may ultimately be the ones lifting the big prize in Kennesaw.
When Wake Forest catches the headlines, the attention is almost always exclusively focused on the team’s high powered scoring duo up front or super sophomore keeper Aubrey Bledsoe. That makes it a little hard for the meat and potatoes defense and midfield of the Demon Deacons to get the recognition they rightfully deserve. Junior Jackie Logue is doing her best to change that though, the talented defender continuing to impress with a series of excellent displays on the backline for the Demon Deacons. But besides her defensive prowess, Logue is also developing a reputation for clutch offense, as some of this season’s performances show. Assists against Florida State and Duke in the regular season and ACC Tournament and a goal against Virginia were one thing, but Logue has turned it up in the NCAA Tournament. The junior netted the match winning goal against Boston University on Friday before having a fantastic day in the Sweet Sixteen win over Penn State with a goal and an assist to her credit. Another performance or two like that in the next few weeks might ensure Logue’s name doesn’t disappear from the headlines for quite some time in Winston-Salem.
-Aubrey Bledsoe Continues To Shine
On Aubrey Bledsoe’s twentieth birthday, she was the one giving Wake Forest a present with another spectacular showing in goal for the Demon Deacons. With a frontline as deadly as Penn State’s, odds were that knocking out the Nittany Lions from this year’s tournament was going to entail getting a fantastic performance in goal. Stengel wasn’t able to keep a clean sheet, but she was still was able to make a string of dazzling saves to keep her side ahead. The sophomore keeper finished with eleven stops, a new career best, to see her side run out 4-2 winners. Bledsoe has been one of the most consistently excellent netminders in the college ranks for the past two seasons and is steadily climbing the U.S. youth international hierarchy at her position with each successive impressive performance. More big-time performances like this one from the Cincinnati native could not only consolidate her spot as one of the most promising American goalkeepers to keep an eye out for but also see her with a chance at lifting a national title for the Demon Deacons in early December.
-Maya Hayes’ Revelation Season
Think of the long line of great scorers that have come through the college ranks over the past half decade. Hanks. Leroux. O’Hara. Nogueira. Press. Henderson. Cheney. And that’s just to name a few. Maya Hayes bettered any and all single-season scoring records of the above this year. Not only that, but Hayes became a select member of the thirty goal club, tying for eleventh all-time in single season scoring with Courtney Linex and a certain Abby Wambach. The sophomore also became the first player since 2005 to tally thirty goals or more in a season, a number that looked unfathomable to most before the season. What’s even more remarkable is perhaps how unexpected Hayes’ amazing season was. Coming to PSU with no small degree of hype behind her, Hayes struggled for consistency as a rookie, tallying just five goals in a disappointing freshman year. The light clicked on again in dramatic fashion this season as Hayes ripped defenses to shreds with a lightning fast first step and deadly finishing prowess. Frightening still is the notion that Hayes still has two years of eligibility left to further hone her craft. A seemingly fallen star at the end of last year, Hayes now is burning brighter than ever and could well be a key element in the U.S.’ 2012 U20 World Cup squad.
-The Rise of Lindsay Taylor
It’s been a long, winding road to the top for Stanford senior Lindsay Taylor. Emerging onto the scene as a freshman in 2008 with sixteen goals, Taylor was a player with no small degree of potential. The Los Altos native had destructive pace and a blistering shot to go with it that had opposing defenses on red alert. But Taylor also built a reputation of inconsistent performances and combined for just seventeen goals over the next two season for the Card. Often overshadowed by first Kelley O’Hara and then Christen Press, the question heading into 2011 was if Taylor was capable of leading the line as those two had so confidently in their stay in Palo Alto. Consider the question answered in the affirmative. Though she hasn’t stayed on O’Hara and Press’ blistering goalscoring pace in their senior seasons, Taylor has still been mighty impressive with nineteen goals and six assists in her senior campaign. Taylor’s also been ever present in the biggest matches for the Card this season, something that hasn’t always been the case in her Stanford career. Besides scoring a free kick to ice the match in the second half on Sunday, Taylor posted an eye-popping line, with nine shots, six of them on target. Though she may not ultimately hit the same spectacular scoring heights as those who came before her, Taylor may end up creating a little history of her own if she and Stanford lift the College Cup in December.
-Ratcliffe Wins The Tactical Battle Against Boston College…Again
Much has been made in the past of Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe’s tactics in the NCAA Tournament, often to criticize some of the Card boss’ tactical decisions in the previous pair of College Cup finals. But in the interest of fairness, it’s also worth underlining when Ratcliffe has gotten it right, specifically and most recently on Sunday when a personnel shift turned the tide towards Stanford’s favor in a tight game up to that point. In a sense, it was very similar to the switch he pulled in last season’s College Cup semi-final against Boston College, when he moved Camille Levin inside into the center of midfield when she had been deployed as a winger early on against the Eagles. The move worked a treat then, and when Ratcliffe shuffled the deck on Sunday to move Levin into midfield from full-back, the move had similar results. Stanford began to assert their dominance on the match with Levin’s ability to take on players 1v1 so key to the home side finding the breakthrough against a stubborn opposition. With the gap in talent between sides shrinking rapidly as the rounds progress in this NCAA Tournament, Ratcliffe may need a few more tactical masterstrokes before all is said and done if Stanford is to lift the title at last.
-Wither Victoria DiMartino?
It was somewhat telling and grimly ironic that Boston College junior Victoria DiMartino drew her fair share of plaudits for the defeated Eagles with one of her best performances of the season. I say grimly ironic, because DiMartino excelled not as the offensive scoring machine she entered the season as. Hardly. DiMartino put up goose eggs across the board despite playing all ninety minutes for BC. Instead, DiMartino hassled and harassed Camille Levin for much of the first hour of play, functioning in effect as a defensive winger in the Ji-Sung Park mold. DiMartino’s work was so effective, it forced Paul Ratcliffe into a tactical switch to free Levin from DiMartino’s shackles, a move that quite likely won Stanford the match. But despite Sunday’s showing, DiMartino’s junior year has been a largely forgettable enterprise. Struggling for form and fitness for much of the season, DiMartino slipped to just four goals and five assists, a decline that necessitated midfielder Kristen Mewis taking the offense upon her shoulders, a move that did not work out well in the long run for the Eagles. The obvious and pressing question now for DiMartino is where she goes from here. Was it just a bad year at the office or a warning sign for the future? DiMartino entered 2011 as a potential Top Five pick in the 2013 WPS Draft. She leaves it as one of the college soccer world’s greatest enigmas.
-Franch and Niemeier Are Clutch Again
On some days, you have to look hard and beyond the obvious to figure out who the stars of the show were. Stillwater was not such a place on Sunday and Oklahoma State’s clash against Maryland was not such a game. While it’s true that Oklahoma State could’ve had a few more goals to help pad the lead in the second half, the only reason they held that lead in the first place was down to junior keeper Adrianna Franch and senior midfielder Annika Niemeier. Niemeier stunned Maryland with her fourth minute goal, giving the German four on the season, all in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps even more impressively, Niemeier, now healthy it would appear, has all three of OSU’s match winning goals in the Big Dance. OSU’s lead wouldn’t have lasted long though without their overpowering goalkeeper. When Danielle Hubka was fouled in the box, Maryland looked to have a golden opportunity to equalize, only to see Ashley Grove foiled by Franch, who dove to her left and stopped the penalty at full stretch. In form at the right time of the year, the veteran pair will again surely be front and center for the Cowgirls on Friday night as they try and make history against Stanford.
-The Baffling Inconsistency of Maryland’s Offense
It’s been a bit of a puzzling season for the Maryland Terrapins program. A trip to the Sweet Sixteen isn’t anything to sneeze at, especially when you consider where this program was about a half decade ago, but on the whole, it’s fair to wonder if the team’s window to reach the next level may have slipped away with the end of this season. Particularly puzzling was the Terps’ offense, which looked like having the potential of being one of the deadliest units in the nation going into to the season. The final product certainly didn’t match the hype. Maryland ended up eighth in the eleven team ACC in league goals and failed to have a player with more than eight. Senior Jasmyne Spencer was essentially a non-entity after two ten goal seasons, scoring just a pair in 2011 after missing a few games through injury. After two years of increasing goal totals, Ashley Grove sank back to five goals in her senior year. Another senior, Sade Ayinde, who had been such a hit as a super sub a year ago, was mostly invisible off the bench this year, with just three goals. Penn State transfer Hayley Brock looked like the team’s best attacker at times with seven goals but was wildly inconsistent, ending up with just five starts. It was somewhat telling that the team’s leading scorer ended up being junior Olivia Wagner, who had only scored three goals in two seasons before knocking in eight this year. With so many seniors headed out the door in the offseason, Wagner could be a focus for the offense next year. But as 2011 showed, past success is certainly no guaranteed indicator of future performance.
-Gut Check Time For Duke
Nobody goes on a title run in November and December without facing a little adversity along the way. Whether it’s an opponent who stubbornly refuses to be carved open or some foe scoring an opportune/lucky goal and forcing a comeback, just about every title winner these days has to dig deep at some point. Sunday was one of those days for the Duke Blue Devils. Despite dominating early in the first half against Ohio State, the home side found themselves facing an uphill climb when the Buckeyes’ Paige Maxwell hit the target near the half-hour mark. Duke would turn the screws and apply unyielding pressure into the break, but would not be able to level the score against the Buckeyes. There wasn’t any sense of panic after the break from the Blue Devils though as they methodically kept up the pressure until Ohio State broke, Duke scoring early and late in the second half. It was a calm and assured performance from the ACC champions against a confident team in a high pressure situation. If Duke goes on to lift the big prize in Kennesaw, this match will likely have been long forgotten. That doesn’t make it any less important to the evolution of this Blue Devils team though.
Oh, the difference a few weeks and a few wins can have on how a season is looked back upon. Not that long ago, Lori Walker’s Ohio State team was in the running for being one of the nation’s most disappointing teams. They had floundered to a seventh place finish in the Big Ten a season after winning the title and making it to the College Cup. All of the promise of a repeat of last season’s heroics looked to have been dashed with a litany of inconsistent and uninspiring performances. Some even questioned whether the Buckeyes belonged at all in the NCAA Tournament after OSU was surely one of the last teams selected for inclusion. But there was still the slightest ray of hope that the Buckeyes would be able to turn it around in November. After all, this team had topped West Virginia in the regular season in Morgantown weeks earlier. Those hopes proved to be validated in emphatic fashion by the team’s thumping of seeded Tennessee in Knoxville in the first round of the Big Dance. With renewed energy, OSU then went on to topple Milwaukee a week later. Duke ended any hopes of a Cinderella run, but the Buckeyes went out fighting until the very end. Was Ohio State a smashing success this season? Not really. But the season as a whole looks a whole lot more palatable at the moment than it did a few weeks ago.
-The Weather In Westwood
Progress through the NCAA Tournament for teams usually involves conquering some atrocious weather at some point in time during the competition. Be it swirling winds, freezing temperatures, or the occasional freak snowstorm, teams have to be prepared to face just about anything come November and December. But monsoon-like rainfall and torrents of water driving onto the pitch? A little less frequent. But no less problematic for Long Beach State and San Diego, who were up against it in their fight with Mother Nature on Sunday. While the field wasn’t quite unplayable, and there didn’t seem to be any massive puddles of standing water on the pitch, the soaked and poorly draining pitch still managed to bring the ball to a dead stop at inopportune occasions. With that in mind, it was never going to be classic per se, though there was still plenty of drama at hand between two clubs striving to reach unchartered territory for their programs. It was always going to be about which coach made the better adjustments on the day, and Long Beach’s Mauricio Ingrassia won out in the end. Ingrassia spoke of making numerous changes positionally for the match and was vindicated in the end, his side advancing through to the Elite Eight.
-Rookie Fairy Tale
Long Beach State advancing to the Elite Eight may have been a longshot. Freshman Ashley Roese being the one to get them there? That might have been one of the biggest shocks of the entire tournament. Long Beach fans would be forgiven for thinking that Nadia Link, the Big West Offensive Player of the Year, or senior talismans Shawna Gordon or Nicole Hubbard might be the player to provide the dagger against San Diego. But Roese? A bit incomprehensible if you would’ve intimated as such before the match. The rookie came into the match having just played in eight matches, including just two in Big West play, with no starts on the season. Roese had a pair of assists on the season but just a single shot to her name and had played in less than a hundred minutes combined all season. But Roese took full advantage when opportunity knocked, ensuring nobody in a LBSU shirt would soon forget her first career goal. Nobody quite knows what the future will hold for Roese, but she’s already done her part to ensure her name will be forever etched as a major part of LBSU’s history making run this postseason.
-The End for Ochs
It wasn’t exactly the best weekend for folks hoping for a chance to get a glimpse of some of the potential WPS draftees for January’s draft. Top seniors have been dropping like flies through the first three rounds of the tournament, and only a handful, if that, of elite senior prospects will be on hand in Kennesaw in a few weeks’ time. One who won’t be making the trip to the College Cup is San Diego forward Stephanie Ochs who, nonetheless, may have done more than any other player down the stretch to improve their WPS Draft stock in the last month of the season. With the Toreros floundering at the beginning of WCC play, Ochs went on a rampage, not scoring goals, but setting them up for her teammates. With Ochs pulling the strings, USD proved nearly unstoppable in league play and claimed a share of the WCC title with a dominant win over Santa Clara. Ochs’ brilliance did not waver in the NCAA Tournament, and a couple of assists and upsets later, San Diego was in the Sweet Sixteen. Ochs may not have another chance to strut her stuff on the college scene, but she’s left an indelible impression on onlookers of both the college and professional persuasion alike. The Toreros striker could be one of the real sleepers for the WPS Draft and might just get snapped up in the first few rounds by an enterprising squad.
-Another Test Passed for Florida State
Challenges keep popping up for Florida State, and the Noles keep knocking them down in stride. FSU could’ve easily groused about being forced on the road in the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament due to logistical concerns back in Tallahassee but did very well to come through the weekend unscathed, earning the right to host an Elite Eight game back at home this Friday. FSU certainly looked the part of contenders this past Friday as they eased past a Portland side that had clipped them earlier in the season back in the Pacific Northwest. Sunday, they faced a Louisville side that came into the matchup as one of the nation’s most in-form sides after having recovered from a nightmare start to the campaign. In the end, the Seminoles took advantage of a somewhat sluggish start by the Cardinals to go into the break with a 1-0 lead and then repelled a charge from the Cardinals in the second half to double their advantage and hold on for the 2-0 win. Aesthetically, it wasn’t the most pleasing performance from Mark Krikorian’s team, but aesthetics factor little into the big picture at this point of the season. Florida State’s playing with a consistency and confidence that has them in with a chance to fulfill the lofty preseason expectations of them but can’t drop off a bit with Virginia coming to town on Friday.
-Louisville’s Inspiring Comeback
Louisville may have ultimately departed the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon but not without reason to hold their heads high for an ultimately successful campaign. The Cardinals entered the season with major question marks surrounding them after an offseason of turmoil and change, which seemed to have quite the effect on their regular season form, highlighted by five straight matches without a win. Form was a bit spotty early on in league play as well, but Louisville started to click in October and finished the month with a perfect 7-0-0 record, including a win in the opening game of the Big East Tournament. Though Louisville would fall in the final to West Virginia, they more than made amends with two notable victories in the NCAA Tournament, toppling Dayton and Memphis for the program’s first two wins in the Big Dance, also setting a program record for wins in the process. What once looked like a program in peril now seems like a team with real momentum going into the 2012 season. The Cardinals have a fantastic building block in Canadian Christine Exeter, and it’ll be intriguing to see how they fare next season with heightened expectations.
-Virginia Has Virginia Tech’s Number
Sometimes, a team just has to face an inescapable and disheartening reality. That reality for a talented Virginia Tech team this season was that their state and conference rivals from Charlottesville were their superiors and emphatically so. The Cavs’ fourth goal on Sunday was a rather meaningless strike in the large scope of things, but Morgan Brian’s strike put a bow on top of UVA’s win, matching their earlier 4-0 win against the Hokies in the regular season. Though the scoreline ended up being the same, the shot count was even more tilted in favor of the Cavs in this encounter, perhaps underlining their dominance over VT. The Hokies are far from a bad team, they certainly proved that point through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as they scored convincing wins over West Virginia and Texas A&M. But at the same time, Chugger Adair’s side had no answer for a Virginia side that ran them ragged on two separate occasions this season.
-A New Champion Awaits
It’s been a wild year of twists, turns, stars, and instant classics in the college ranks in 2011. The NCAA Tournament itself has been a drama laden enterprise with shootouts galore, upsets, and unpredictability strewn all around. Trying to predict what will happen to the last eight teams standing over the course of two weeks and three more rounds is like playing roulette blindfolded. But there is one predictable element to next Sunday afternoon in Kennesaw: For the first time since 2007, someone new is going to be lifting the College Cup (or the block of unimaginative wood that doubles for a proper trophy). With North Carolina the last former champion to fall on Sunday, there’ll be a brand new set of heroines waiting to write their name in immortality in a few weeks time. And I, for one, cannot wait.