Commentary

Unlikely players step up for Pride

Updated: October 26, 2010, 10:42 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Hofstra coach Simon Riddiough had a problem last spring, the coaching equivalent of the nightmare in which you show up at school to find yourself sitting for an exam you didn't know you had.

[+] EnlargeTiffany Yovino
Brian Ballweg Tiffany Yovino is hoping to lead Hofstra back to the NCAA tournament.

Riddiough didn't have a goalkeeper. And despite returning a potentially prolific group of forwards and midfielders, that issue threatened to put the Pride on the wrong end of the score against anyone who could hit the target on a 24-foot open invitation.

The scarcity of saves arose when Hofstra's No. 1 keeper from the 2009 season, Krysten Farriella, elected to forgo a potential fifth season of eligibility for medical reasons and backup Kylie Shuster tore her ACL during the spring. And it was that scarcity that led Riddiough to stop by the training room one day in April and ask Krista Thorn -- then a junior infielder for the school's softball team who had played one season of college soccer as a freshman goalkeeper at Iona -- if she'd like to make a comeback in the fall.

"My jaw dropped," Thorn recalled. "I was thinking in my head, 'Yes!' but I was trying to think about all the other things that would come into play. Would I have time to do work? Would softball allow me to do this?"

With the blessing of softball coach Bill Edwards, Thorn soon accepted the invitation. Just for good measure, Riddiough, a native of England, also searched through old e-mail correspondence and reached out to Emily Morphitis, a youth player from London who had formerly expressed interest in playing college soccer in the United States. No, she hadn't already committed elsewhere, he learned. And yes, she could be in New York for the fall.

Fast forward to Sunday, and Thorn and Morphitis, as they have all season, split keeper duties in Hofstra's 2-0 win against UNC Wilmington, a win that clinched the outright Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title and extended the nation's longest winning streak to 16 games.

The two keepers aren't the stars of the show -- although they have more than adequately filled the void in goal en route to seven clean sheets -- but they are proof positive as to why Hofstra is ranked in the Top 25 for the first time ever and ranked directly behind national powers Texas A&M, Florida State and UCLA in last week's RPI.

The shortest player on the field against UNC Wilmington at exactly 5 feet, and most definitely one of the stars of the show, Hofstra senior midfielder Tiffany Yovino offered her own interpretation of who the Pride are when she headed home the opening goal -- the second time in nine days she got her head to the ball for an eventual winner.

[+] EnlargeKrista Thorn
Brian Ballweg Krista Thorn thought her soccer career was finished before she was asked to take over between the pipes.

A successful prep player from the rich recruiting ground of Long Island, where she also played for Riddiough's Olympic development program team, Yovino drew a smattering of interest from schools in the ACC and Big East coming out of high school. But she recalled that coaches from those schools told her they couldn't offer her the kind of scholarship money she deserved, ostensibly because a player her size was simply too big a risk.

Riddiough was all too happy to keep Yovino close to home, where she's a lock to earn first-team All-CAA honors for a third consecutive season (she was a second-teamer as a freshman). And a week after heading home the winner in the final minutes at William and Mary, there she was fighting for position in a crowded 18-yard box and getting her head on Amy Turner's free kick for the first goal against the Seahawks. She's not a player easily forgotten, and big though her smile may be, she's also not a player who easily forgets.

"Sometimes we've played those teams that didn't really give me everything that I would want," Yovino said. "It's nice to play them and beat them and have so much success with this team. But ultimately, I'm so happy that I'm here, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

So it goes for Hofstra. Leading scorer Salma Tarik transferred after one season at Cal State Northridge to be closer to her mother. Forward Laura Greene was set to run track at Virginia Tech before opting at the last minute to stay closer to home and play soccer. Most of the back line are converted forwards.

There's nothing ragtag about the Hofstra program, which advanced to the NCAA tournament in two of Riddiough's first four seasons and hasn't had a losing season under anyone's watch since 1996. But from overlooked talent to unlikely keepers, this is not your typical juggernaut. And they're all the more likable for it.

"We're a bit blue-collar," Riddiough said. "We don't get, necessarily, the blue-chippers coming out of the Island. We get the kids who are under the radar a little bit. You get a bit lucky with some late transfers. You balance it out, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it does, it's tremendous. And it seems to be doing that this year."

Around the nation

Speaking of teams enjoying their best seasons on record, Maryland took a big step in that direction with its first win in 33 tries against North Carolina. Coming off a 2-1 loss against Wake Forest on Thursday, and playing without regular starters Ashley Grove and Domenica Hodak because of red cards in that game, the Terrapins rode Sade Ayinde goals in the 78th and 85th minutes to the 2-1 win against the Tar Heels. Of the 13 ACC players with at least eight goals, Ayinde is the only one who doesn't start on a regular basis, and her rate of a goal every 38.2 minutes she's on the field is easily tops among that select group of finishers.

Maryland's win was the culmination of a weekend that leaves the ACC a postseason puzzle. With one more round of conference games to play in the regular season, Florida State controls its own destiny but will do so on the road against Maryland and Boston College. Just a point behind the Seminoles, North Carolina travels to Duke and Wake Forest. And Virginia, currently tied for third with Maryland and Wake Forest, might have the best route to the title, closing with cellar residents NC State and Clemson.

The picture is less muddled in the West Coast Conference, in part because there's no conference tournament to worry about, but also because Portland took care of business and staked its claim to the conference crown with road wins at San Diego and Santa Clara. With their two remaining games coming against Saint Mary's and San Francisco, currently at the bottom of the WCC standings, the Pilots are in position to enter the NCAA tournament at 19-1-0, their best since 2005's unbeaten season (when they were 18-0-1 entering the tournament).

Outside of a 3-1 win at California, all of Portland's signature wins -- at home against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M and on the road against San Diego and Santa Clara -- have come by the same 1-0 margin. All told, Portland has six 1-0 wins this season, and while the most important part of that combination is clearly the "win" part, it's still an eye-catching number for the Pilots. They had only two 1-0 wins all of last season, three in 2008 and four in 2007. Not since 2003 have they had more. Yet with all that said, if you took the opportunity to watch the weekend's pair of nationally televised games, you saw a team that still constructs a buildup as well anyone.

The Big East is the first of the major conferences to begin its league tournament, with two first-round games Thursday and four quarterfinals Sunday, all at the higher seeds (Rutgers hosts the semifinals and final). Marquette enters as the top seed after an unbeaten regular season (11-0-0) and will look to become only the fourth team to deny Notre Dame the tournament title. One of those teams was West Virginia in 2007, and the current Mountaineers enter as one of the hottest teams this side of Marquette, winning nine consecutive games to close the conference regular season.

Stock Watch

Stock Up

Michigan: The Wolverines needed at least one result against a pair of ranked teams, and they got it with a 1-0 overtime win at Minnesota (they also lost 1-0 at Wisconsin). It was Michigan's first top-50 RPI win of the season

Oklahoma: The Sooners won at Texas for the first time ever and almost came away with a draw at Texas A&M. It doesn't get any easier with the regular-season finale against likely ornery Oklahoma State, which lost twice over the weekend, but beating the Longhorns keeps Oklahoma in the at-large mix.

Penn State: Just when we thought they were out. Penn State scored a much-needed 2-0 win at Illinois. Win three winnable games and the Nittany Lions finish 10-8-1 and at least have a pulse.

South Florida: Beat St. John's and Syracuse to close regular season with four consecutive wins. A Big East quarterfinal against Georgetown is still a very-much-recommend-win, but perhaps not unequivocally a must-win.

Stock Down

Baylor: The Bears had a strong case for being on the right side of the bubble entering the weekend. After losses at home against Missouri and Iowa State, that's no longer the case.

Houston: This is a bit harsh because a 1-1 draw was actually a good result. But a loss at UAB knocked them out of first place in Conference USA for a team that could use the top seed in the conference tournament.

Connecticut: The loss at West Virginia was to be expected (although perhaps not by a 3-0 score), but the 1-0 loss at Pitt makes Thursday's Big East first-rounder against Louisville a must-win game to have any reasonable chance of an at-large bid (also likely true for the Cardinals).

California: The RPI is still rock-solid and the Bears can't finish worse than .500, but in terms of momentum, one point out of a trip to Arizona and Arizona State means they've taken just nine of a possible 27 points in their past nine games heading into Saturday's home game with Stanford.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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