Commentary

BC soccer soars to new heights

Eagles earn program's first trip to NCAA quarterfinals behind Massachusetts natives

Updated: November 26, 2009, 10:55 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

NEWTON, Mass. -- Anyone who has spent much time on the roads of Boston, a constantly shifting jigsaw puzzle of roundabouts, acute angles and double-parked obstacles, can attest that comfortable navigation requires a degree of familiarity gained only through years of experience.

Transplants can make peace with Boston geography; only natives ever really understand it.

Kulik
Jon Quackenbos Her 13th season at BC is a lucky one for coach Alison Kulik, pictured with Brooke Knowlton.

So perhaps it's not entirely surprising that it took a Bay State native to guide this northernmost outpost of the best conference in women's soccer to the top of the sport.

With a 1-0 win against Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA tournament, No. 2 seed Boston College advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history. A program that played its first game a year before the Yankees' Bucky Dent hit his famous home run against the Red Sox in 1978 finally stands one win away from the College Cup.

Blocking that path is overall No. 1 seed Stanford, unbeaten and untied. But in the eyes of Wisconsin coach Paula Wilkins, whose team played Stanford and perennial power/fellow quarterfinals team Notre Dame earlier this season, the Eagles head to Palo Alto, Calif., on essentially equal footing.

"I think their attacking group is very dynamic, very good," Wilkins said of the Eagles. "I think having the ability to have players take people on one-[versus]-one is very important, and so I think their ability to play off each other and their running off the ball is similar to those two programs.

"I would definitely put them in their league."

Boston College coach Alison Kulik is quick to contend defense has always been the "heart and soul" of her program, as embodied this season by a back line -- plus holding midfielder Chelsea Regan and keeper Jillian Mastroianni -- that hasn't allowed a goal in three NCAA tournament games. But the team's greatest attribute is the depth in the attack that Wilkins referenced.

Wisconsin entered the third-round game looking to contain both Boston College leading scorer Victoria DiMartino and Kristen Mewis, arguably the Eagles' most gifted player. A squad that got to that point on the strength of its defense, Wisconsin was largely able to contain DiMartino and Mewis, closing down the left side of the attack for long stretches and breathing a few sighs of relief when Mewis' blasts from long range sailed a few feet off target. But as the game wore on, Eagles junior Amy Caldwell probed deeper and deeper on the right side, softening the defense and facilitating the kind of sustained possession that ultimately left Brooke Knowlton in position to drive a ball into the top left corner of the net in the 62nd minute.

One route blocked, Boston College simply knew too many other paths to goal.

[+] EnlargeKristen Mewis
Jon Quackenbos Freshman Kristen Mewis has been a tremendous addition to the Eagles.

Both Mewis, who was awarded the 2008 Bronze Ball as one of the top players at the Under-17 World Cup, and Caldwell, a top recruit three years ago, are Massachusetts products. They could have gone anywhere -- Mewis had North Carolina on her short list -- but stayed home. A native of nearby Plymouth, Mass., and former Keene (N.H.) State player who left the area only briefly before taking over at Boston College in 1997, Kulik's Boston brogue amplifies the meaning of her words when she talks about the importance of her local recruiting turf in addition to drawing talents like sisters Gina and Victoria DiMartino from the fertile mid-Atlantic recruiting ground.

"One of the focuses we have is always try and get the best in-state," Kulik said. "And if you can get the best in-state, you just grabbed one of the best in the country. I believe [Kristen] is and Amy is. … They become media darlings in their local papers and their family and their friends all get to support them. I think it's awesome because those kids have a lot of options, and the fact that we can keep them here is certainly a goal and certainly a great thing for us all."

That it's a program reaching new heights but also built on a foundation as solid as any of the sport's more familiar names is underscored by one of Kulik's assistants. Mike LaVigne started the program in 1977 and led the Eagles to the first two NCAA tournaments. He moved on to other soccer ventures in 1984, but he's now in his eighth season as one of Kulik's assistants.

"I really like these coaches," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said earlier this season. "I really like Alison. Mike LaVigne and I go back to the beginning of the women's game in North America, and he was organizing events up here for the national team when no one cared. If we don't do well in the conference, the school we probably root for most is them. And I love the way they've built it; they've built it honorably and they've built it with good kids. I have a lot of respect for what they've done."

When people say, 'Is there any dream school out there?' -- I'm at it. [To] be able to be at such a great institution that you grew up having so much respect for, it was my dream job.

-- Boston College coach Alison Kulik

Moving to the ACC in 2005 necessarily raised Boston College's profile, in addition to creating a whole new set of challenges. As the league proved again this season, filling half of the quarterfinal field, it is the standard by which women's college soccer measures itself. But Boston College was the peak of the profession for Kulik long before the program moved to a ritzy new neighborhood and long before the current crop of talent made it a legitimate championship contender.

For someone from the shadow of Plymouth Rock, this was never a stepping stone.

"Honestly, it's a dream come true," Kulik said of her position. "When people say, 'Is there any dream school out there?' -- I'm at it. When you grow up in the South Shore, in Massachusetts anywhere, you always have such admiration for Boston College. All my family's here. All my best friends, my closest friends are all here. And to be able to be at such a great institution that you grew up having so much respect for, it was my dream job."

And 90 minutes against Wisconsin carried an awful lot of validation for what LaVigne started more than three decades ago and what Kulik has taken to new heights in the past 13 seasons.

"Now that it's over, and we are going to the final eight, I think we're a little bit relieved," Kulik said. "A lot of people were wondering if we could get over the hump."

But in Boston, you've got to trust the locals. They always seem to know how to get where they're going.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. For the complete NCAA women's soccer tournament schedule and results, click here.

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

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