(1) Duke vs Long Beach State – Durham, North Carolina – 7:00 PM
David vs Goliath? That’d be a little harsh on Friday’s visitors who didn’t arrive here sheerly by luck. But there’s no question that the 49ers are the biggest underdogs still standing and will have to play the match of their lives to earn a trip to Kennesaw in a week. The Beach have been the queens of pragmatism over the last month, winning their last four matches by a 1-0 scoreline. It’s been the perfect formula for a club looking to gatecrash the College Cup for the first time for both program and conference alike. But they get a tough draw in the form of a Duke team that just happened to come out on top of the most challenging conference race in the history of college soccer by winning the cutthroat ACC this season. Even though the program suffered a setback with defeat to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament semi-finals, it’s hardly seemed to affect the Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament thus far. Duke had little trouble brushing aside Radford and Georgia before meeting up with Ohio State last Sunday. The Blue Devils wouldn’t blink despite going down to OSU, calmly fighting their way back until they snapped the Buckeyes’ resistance en route to a 2-1 win. The pressure rises with each successive round though, and Duke knows that LBSU aren’t about to make an easy time of it on Friday night.
Duke – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – Junior Tara Campbell is as steady as they come in goal for the Blue Devils and will be pushing for All-America honors after anchoring Duke’s steely defense this year. Campbell doesn’t get the recognition that many of her peers do, even within the ACC where she’s generally overshadowed by the likes of Chantel Jones and Aubrey Bledose. But there’s few more quietly methodical than the Cincinnati native who broke her nose against Virginia Tech in the first half of the ACC Tournament quarterfinal but returned in goal in the next round as steady and dependable as ever.
Defenders – While this group truly hasn’t its peak yet with no seniors amongst the starting quartet, they’ve still nonetheless coalesced into a mighty tough backline for Robbie Church. The crown jewel at the moment is the youngest of the group, in the form of sophomore Natasha Anasi. Originally used in midfield at the start of the season, Anasi was drafted into filling in at center-back after the season ending injury to Ashley Rape. It’s been a smashing success to say the least, with Anasi turning into one of the nation’s most fearsome defenders and winning ACC Defender of The Year honors in the process. Her teammates aren’t all that bad either. This group has essentially functioned as a unit for the better part of three years now, meaning this back four is as cohesive as almost any in the nation. Erin Koballa and Libby Jandl provide the size, both standing at 5’7″, while Maddy Haller is just 5’4″ but still has the tenacity of her teammates. They’re a top ten defense for a reason and will need to be at their best again with Long Beach boasting star striker Nadia Link in their ranks.
Midfielders – It’s two parts steel and one part style for the Duke midfield. Sophomore Kaitlyn Kerr provides the latter for the Blue Devils in the middle of the park, functioning almost as a fourth forward at times for the Durham side. Known more or less for the massive brace she wears on one of her knees, Kerr has been a breakout star for Duke this season after struggling with injury last year. Kerr is now into double digits for goals on the year with ten and has made most of them count with six strikes going down as match winners, including all three in league play. Kerr’s been on fire in the NCAA Tournament with goals in all three rounds to this point. Kerr’s not just dangerous with the ball at her feet though, showing no small ability to attack the ball in the air either. With set pieces so critical in postseason play, it’s a good thing then that the team can call upon junior Nicole Lipp, a big body in midfield whose free kick service from midfield has turned into a nice weapon for the club. Lipp can also chip in with the odd goal as well, with both of her strikes in 2011 going down as match winners. The other likely starter is sophomore Gilda Doria, a Florida product who’s locked down a starting role this season after starting thirteen matches last year. Doria, like Lipp, are more safety first midfielders though, letting the attacking thrust go through Kerr on most occasions.
Forwards – The Big Three have been running roughshod over teams all over the nation this season and look poised to do so for a few more years after this one. Duke had a ferocious attack before this season, but the addition of freshman Kelly Cobb really put them over the top as far as attacking power went. Highly touted coming into Durham, Cobb has done more than live up to expectations, leading the team with eleven goals and eight assists. That total would’ve likely been higher had Cobb not missed some time in the middle of the season with a practice injury. Blending power, pace, and technical skill, the Alaskan looks like a future superstar in the college ranks. Her linemates are pretty good too. Laura Weinberg got off to a slow start this season leading some to believe she could be vulnerable to a sophomore slump. Weinberg though started to heat up in league play, leading the team in ACC goals with four. That included a pair of goals against Wake Forest in the team’s huge 2-0 win over the Demon Deacons that put them on track for a league title. Fellow sophomore Mollie Pathman hasn’t quite been the scoring threat she was last season, with just one goal in her last twelve matches. But she has been a vital enabler for her teammates, with assists in five of her last eight matches to stamp her place as an important part of this Duke offense.
Reserves – It’s not all about the starting group though for Duke as the Blue Devils have one of the strongest benches of the remaining teams in the competition. Kim DeCesare is listed as a defender on the roster, but her big frame makes her an imposing target player, and she’s hammered home three goals on the year, as has Chelsea Canepa, one of the few seniors to feature on this Duke team. Another senior that is a threat off the bench is Molly Lester, a jack of all trades who can play anywhere really and has fought off constant knee injuries to become a real X-Factor off the bench for these Blue Devils. Alex Straton’s a capable defensive sub, while Katie Trees has also earned some minutes off the bench in attack after being sidelined by injury for part of her rookie season.
Long Beach State – Personnel Breakdown
Goalkeepers – Having only played sporadically in four years at both Long Beach and her first school, Oklahoma State, Kaitlyn Gustaves is now a part of 49ers lore after her performances down the stretch to help the club win a Big West Tournament title along with their stirring run to the Elite Eight. The local native shined brightest in Long Beach’s NCAA Tournament first round upset over WCC champions Pepperdine. The senior made twelve saves on that afternoon to help the visiting 49ers dump the Waves out of the tournament in extra time. Odds are, considering some of the firepower she’s facing on Friday, she’ll have to have another exemplary performance if LBSU wants to keep moving on in this tournament.
Defenders – In what is something of a theme between this year’s Elite Eight participants, Long Beach State also features a likely starting defense featuring no seniors. The leader of the pack for the 49ers is junior Alex Balcer. One of the more attack minded of Long Beach’s defensive group, Balcer has four assists on the season, including the one on the match winning goal against UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament final. That and her stellar defensive work on the dangerous Anteater attack helped Balcer win Big West Tournament MVP honors, and the veteran will be counted on to help lead the defense once again. Two of the other likely starters on the backline have a Loyola Marymount connection, having started out their college career with the Lions. Kelsey Wilson looked a budding star in Los Angeles as a freshman before transferring and redshirting last season. Wilson’s been just as impressive in her first season with the Beach, and tabled the team’s winning goal against Miami (FL) last Friday. Another LMU expat, Jordan Nelson spent two seasons with the Lions before making the move to Long Beach. She’s also shifted seamlessly into the LBSU lineup, making twenty-four starts for the club. The other likely starter is junior Jenny Soza, who despite her roots as a forward likely isn’t a threat going forward for the 49ers.
Midfielders – While Nadia Link may get all the headlines for LBSU, the heartbeat of the team lies in midfield with senior midfielder extraordinaire, Shawna Gordon. One of the best midfielders in Big West history and one of the nation’s most consistently underrated in recent years, Gordon has again been huge for the Beach in her final season of college ball. Seven goals and ten assists are both career bests for the veteran, though she’s been in a bit of a scoring slump down the stretch with just a single point in her last ten matches. It was a big one though, an assist on the goal against UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament. Even if she isn’t scoring, Gordon’s leadership and experience is an invaluable asset at this stage of the season. Fellow senior, Sidney Garza, is another in a long line of transfers who’ve made impacts with LBSU at their second shot in college soccer. After starting most of last year, Garza again has been a constant in the lineup, starting all but one match this season. The Ventura native can also play defense, though she’s not a big factor up front. Freshman Taylor Nelson, sister of Jordan, figures to hold down the other spot in midfield on Friday against the Blue Devils. After beginning the season as a reserve, Nelson has worked her way into the starting lineup and has four assists on the year.
Forwards – How apropos that one of the Cinderellas of the NCAA Tournament has a truly larger than life story heading up the effort. Nadia Link’s unbelievable journey has seen her grow into a striker of the highest order for Long Beach as a junior. Sixteen goals, ten assists, and seven match winning strikes have made for a stunning campaign for the Rowland Heights native. Link’s scored plenty of goals this year, but none bigger than the one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Malibu that sunk Pepperdine in extra time and sent Long Beach to Westwood to make some more history. Link’s facing no easy task though on Friday, matched up with the uber-talented Natasha Anasi. That means she’s probably going to need some help from her linemates up top. Nicole Hubbard’s a big target forward type at 5’11” and has blossomed in her senior season with eight goals and five assists. She was one of Long Beach’s best players on the pitch against San Diego and also had the game winning assist against Miami last Friday. The veteran could also move into defense if need be for LBSU. Also likely to feature up front is senior Jazz Strozier, who stands even bigger at 6’1″. After two years of tearing up the JUCO ranks, Strozier was seldom used last year for the 49ers. Not so this year, where she’s featured frequently in the starting lineup. Strozier doesn’t have the strike rate of her teammates but does have one of the team’s most memorable goals this year, the game winner against UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament.
Reserves – If the past week has taught us anything with this LBSU team, it’s to expect the unexpected from off the bench. Considering that, it’s still likely to be senior Nicole Sweetman providing the heroics in a super sub role if it comes to that. Sweetman’s no stranger to a starting role, having started for most of last season and for ten games this year. The ex-UCLA player has six goals this season, including three in four games at one point, meaning she’s likely option #1 for attacking off the bench. Fellow forwards Sierra Mack and Sarah Dryden may also provide fresh legs off the bench for the Beach in Durham on Friday. Of course, you’d be remiss to not mention freshman Ashley Roese, whose goal against San Diego vaulted her into cult heroine status, with the rookie having previously played just eight matches this season with limited minutes for the most part. Kassidy Hause has started four matches as well and could spell someone in midfield if need be.
Though it seems patently ridiculous to say this about an Elite Eight team, this is a big step up in class for LBSU nonetheless. Duke is by far the best team the Beach have faced this season and will provide a massive challenge for the visiting side. Also worrisome is Long Beach’s noted lack of experience on the road this year. LBSU has played plenty of road matches, but they’ve only played two of those outside of the state of California, both losses to Milwaukee and Marquette. Those matches by the way were at the end of August, meaning Long Beach hasn’t forayed out of the state in about three months. Any travel weariness from the Big West side could be punished ruthlessly by the ACC champions.
It’s been a long, hard climb for Duke coach Robbie Church, who bounced around at many different stops with both men and women’s teams in the college game before landing at Duke in 2001. Since then, it’s been a battle and a half to finally extricate the Blue Devils from the sizable shadow of their notable neighbors just down the road in Chapel Hill. Duke gained a reputation for mid-table anonymity in the league before pulling a Houdini act or two in the Big Dance with a pair of Elite Eights in 2007 and 2008. But the Blue Devils have been building towards finally getting over the hump and winning that elusive national title. And with the class Church has assembled, they might just do it this season.
A proud Argentinian, Long Beach State coach Mauricio Ingrassia has been a true success story as he’s climbed the ladder in the collegiate coaching ranks. Starting out by building a powerhouse in the JUCO ranks at Long Beach City College, Ingrassia soon made the move up to DI with LBSU and has flourished with the 49ers. Ingrassia’s work has gotten Long Beach into the NCAA Tournament three of the last four seasons, with the 49ers unfortunate to have not made progress last season as they were denied by Santa Clara despite outshooting the Broncos by a very large ratio. There’d be no mistake this season though, as LBSU brought home another Big West Tournament title and embarked on a November run that won’t be soon forgotten by 49er fans.
Famous Last Words
Ingrassia spoke of coming up with a great (and different) gameplan to help his Long Beach side overcome both San Diego and the elements last Sunday afternoon. He’ll need an even better gameplan heading across the country to play a battle tested and confident Duke side. Long Beach has been playing (and winning) on a razor’s edge in the postseason with four straight 1-0 victories. Operating with such a small margin of error all the time figures to catch up with teams sooner or later, and LBSU faces a steep task ahead of themselves on Friday against the ACC champions. Given Duke’s defense, Long Beach isn’t going to get many chances to put the ball in the back of the net, so they better take those that come their way. Even if they do, they may be grasping for answers to try and slow down a Duke offense which has carved up opponents just as and more formidable than LBSU this season.