Commentary

Oregon State is tourney team to watch

5 Burning Questions on the third round of the NCAA women's soccer tournament

Updated: November 18, 2009, 4:11 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

As the 2009 NCAA women's soccer tournament rolls on, here are 5 Burning Questions heading into this weekend's third round.

1. Which team turned in the best performance to get here?

Just as it did throughout the regular season, Oregon State showed little interest in merely making the most of the scraps the program had long subsisted on. The Beavers' making the field for the first time since 1994 was a nice story. But handed a trip to Ohio State for a first-round game against the host Buckeyes, and with 3-seed Florida also in the quartet of teams in Columbus, it appeared all that remained was a quick epilogue.

Oregon State

Instead, Oregon State beat Ohio State 3-1 in the opener, outshot Florida in regulation in the second round and maintained enough poise to come away with a 1-0 overtime win against the Gators.

In just his second year as head coach, former Oregon State assistant Linus Rhode has transformed the program and constructed a team that is 5-3-1 on the road this season (and 4-0-0 at neutral sites). It's not a team at the top of the charts in goals scored or fewest goals allowed, but with a core group that plays heavy minutes, it survived the rugged Pac-10 schedule and came out ready for more.

Another long trip to Notre Dame, which has been piling up goals of late, seems like too much to ask of the Beavers. But that hasn't stopped them yet.

2. Which player had the most valuable performance thus far?

Notre Dame's Melissa Henderson was the most prolific, scoring six goals in two games for the Fighting Irish. South Carolina keeper Mollie Patton was among the stingiest, registering two clean sheets and making six saves.

[+] EnlargeBianca Henninger
John Medina Bianca Henninger makes the winning save against Oklahoma State's penalty kick Sunday.

But if you want to talk about the player who is most directly responsible for getting a team to the Sweet 16, start with Santa Clara sophomore keeper Bianca Henninger.

Despite playing in what appeared on paper to be one of the most balanced pods of four teams in the first two rounds, Henninger didn't necessarily have a lot to do in either a first-round 1-0 overtime win against Michigan State or the first 100 minutes of a second-round game against Oklahoma State. Santa Clara outshot its opponents by a combined 45-7 margin over that stretch. But after making a save in the second overtime against the Cowgirls, Henninger not only saved two more shots in the ensuing shootout but also started the Broncos off on the right foot by converting her team's first penalty kick.

It was Santa Clara's first shootout win in the NCAA tournament since beating Portland in the quarterfinals in 2003. And in a bit of a cruel twist, it was the second year in a row a keeper's standout performance in a penalty shootout denied Oklahoma State a trip to the third round opposite Stanford.

3. What is the must-see game of the third round?

From contrasting styles to plentiful individual talent and a proxy fight for conference respect, Wake Forest visiting South Carolina is a do-it-yourself kit for drama.

Demon Deacons coach Tony da Luz makes watching Barcelona games a regular part of his team's training, and the players translate that into their own fluid, attacking style. Paced by the individual brilliance of Jill Hutchinson (14 goals) and game-changing pace of Kaley Fountain (10 goals, 10 assists), Wake Forest averaged two goals per game through the regular season and conference tournament -- and did that one better with five goals in shutout wins against Kennesaw State and West Virginia in the first two rounds.

South Carolina enters with one of the nation's stingiest defenses, led by senior Blakely Mattern and keeper Mollie Patton, but the Gamecocks' brand of soccer is anything but dour. They counter, they possess, they feed Kayla Grimsley (13 goals) and they make opponents pay on set pieces. But at the back of it all is that defense.

If the matchup is not enticing enough, the panoramic view offers the SEC's lone remaining entrant trying to earn the conference postseason respect against a neighbor from ACC country.

4. Which No. 1 seed has the most to worry about?

One-seeds UCLA and Florida State welcome unseeded Virginia and Texas A&M, respectively, but it's tough to consider either underdog out of its depth. Both the Cavaliers and Aggies opened the season in the top 10 and have experience on the postseason stage.

Familiarity is also a theme for a pair of No. 4 seeds, as Santa Clara visits No. 1 Stanford and Maryland visits No. 1 North Carolina. The Broncos dropped a 6-2 decision at home against the Cardinal in September and have been outscored 11-2 by their Bay Area rival over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, the Terrapins and Tar Heels meet for the third time this season, and the former has yet to score a goal (they're 0-29-1 all time against North Carolina).

UCLA

So let's return to Westwood for a moment.

Since the beginning of October, Virginia has just two official losses -- one-goal road defeats at the hands of Boston College and North Carolina (they also lost in penalty kicks against Boston College in the ACC tournament). An offense that produced in fits and starts let loose with six goals in the second half of a second-round game against Penn State. If you believe in teams peaking at the right time, Virginia seems to fit the bill.

UCLA has been on a roll of its own, outscoring seven opponents 26-4 since a loss at Stanford. That included a pair of demolition jobs against Boise State and San Diego State in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. That's worrisome for any opponent but particularly one with as young a back line as the Cavaliers. But when it comes to looking for light against the longest odds, you've got to take what you can get.

5. Is there any reason to change to the College Cup predictions?

Unless you were a big supporter of the SEC, it's difficult to see why an opening weekend without many upsets would cause much flip-flopping, no matter which teams you originally picked to make the trip to College Station.

Nothing that happened dissuades me from sticking with Florida State, North Carolina, Portland and Stanford.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.