- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The bracket for the NCAA tournament won't be released for a few more days, but it's already safe to say Oregon State will not reprise last season's role as a Sweet 16 surprise.
No, the Beavers will instead have to worry about falling victim to an early surprise like those they sprang on Ohio State and Florida last November. Worry just like every other elite team.
With one more weekend of regular-season play remaining in the Pac-10, No. 1 Stanford still hasn't clinched the conference crown, even though it also still hasn't lost a game this season. That reality comes courtesy of Oregon State, which extended one of the nation's longest winning streaks and maintained a spotless record in the Pac-10 with shutout wins against Arizona State (1-0) and Arizona (3-0) over the weekend. Perfect through seven conference games, Oregon State is 14-1-1 on the season as it heads south for a showdown with the Cardinal on Friday night in Palo Alto and a Sunday finale across the water at California.
It's not a bad place to be for a program that seemed to fit the profile of a footnote in postseason history after a run last season that ended with a 1-0 loss at Notre Dame in the third round.
Long in the shadow of both conference powers like UCLA and Stanford and in-state soccer superpower Portland, Oregon State's four wins (4-5-0) in the Pac-10 last season were one fewer than the preceding four seasons combined and matched the most in program history. And that team graduated four seniors who started against Notre Dame, players who accounted for almost half of the 34 goals the Beavers scored last season.
What didn't leave was the belief won by last season's success and the core of a defense for third-year coach Linus Rhode that has allowed just seven goals this season and kept clean sheets in 11 of 16 games, including the last six in a row. Defense is an all-field responsibility for a team that still isn't going to break national scoring records. But in front of keeper Colleen Boyd, the back-line quartet of Milan Cabrera, Ashley Folsom, Brittany Galindo, Ashley Seal (actually a quintet with oft-used reserve Justyne Freud) particularly plays like a group that logged nearly 6,000 collective minutes last season.
"They've been outstanding," Rhode said. "They've been together now for three years [Cabrera is the only one who has been in Corvallis less than three seasons]. They understand each other very well and they work extremely hard for each other. And obviously, they're very good defenders individually, but as a group, they've really come together well this year."
Oregon State's lone loss came in its toughest nonconference game, on the road at UC Irvine. But any doubts as to the team's legitimacy were erased when it swept USC and UCLA two weeks ago, the first time the Beavers had ever beaten both Los Angeles schools in the same season.
"For us, it was a chance to show the nation what we're capable of," Rhode said. "We were confident going into both of those games that we could get results if we played our game and showed up on the day. It was nice to get those results, obviously, and now we're being pushed up in all the different rankings and so on and so forth. But we knew, and we had that belief, that we could beat them.
"It wasn't like we were going into a game where we were way over our heads."
Just like they won't go into the postseason as a sleeper, but instead as a Pac-10 power.
Speaking of defense, Florida State used it on both ends of the field to pull out a 1-0 win against Boston College on Sunday and avoid a rare two-loss week after Thursday's loss at Maryland.
Junior Toni Pressley was part of a backline that slowed, if not completely silenced, Boston College stars Kristie Mewis and Victoria DiMartino (who along with Seminoles forward Casey Short were Pressley's teammates on the United States youth national team that competed in the Under-20 World Cup over the summer). And with the game seemingly on the path to a 0-0 draw, Pressley delivered the second-half free kick that led to a DiMartino handball in the box and a penalty kick that, you guessed it, Pressley calmly put home for the game's lone goal.
Pressley's heroics on the other end aside, Florida State's defense has taken the lead this season, a somewhat unusual development in Tallahassee. The Seminoles have turned out plenty of stingy defenses, to be sure, but at 11 goals in 18 games (0.61 goals per game), including just five in ACC play, this defense is on pace to be one of the stingiest of them all.
And after unexpectedly finding themselves without injured strikers Tiffany McCarty and Jessica Price, who accounted for 33 goals last season, that has been less luxury than survival skill this season.
"As they say, defending wins championships," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said. "And you know, we've had some good seasons at Florida State, but unfortunately, we've not been able to win a championship. As I look at, we're going to have to continue to defend well. We don't have all of the firepower that we've had in the past, where some games we were able to score three, four, five goals, where this year it's been more about can we score a goal or two goals and find a way to get the result."
The Seminoles, who face Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC tournament Wednesday, scored just three goals in five games against the ACC's top five teams during the regular season but still came away with a with a 2-2-1 record in those games. And with players like Belgian international Janice Cayman (who leads the team with nine goals in a role more extensive than originally envisioned), Amanda DaCosta, Tori Huster and Short, it's still an offense with its share of talent, as Krikorian was quick to add to any lament about adjusting without McCarty and Price.
"We're blessed to have so many good pieces," Krikorian said. "I mean, I don't want to cry poverty because I've got a collection of some of the best players in the U.S. and the world. It's not like we don't have other good players. We have a lot of good players."
Conference tournament watch
ACC (Cary, N.C.): Quarterfinal Wednesday in the ACC may be the best day of soccer this postseason, with four great games on tap. Strange to say about a team with wins against North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Boston College, but this still shapes up as an opportunity for Maryland to prove remaining doubters wrong. Top seed North Carolina is, as usual, the favorite, but Virginia has also been on a roll of late.
Big 12 (San Antonio): The Big 12 is home to possibly the most muddled NCAA tournament bubble picture in the country, making the early rounds of the conference tournament must-win affairs for teams like Nebraska (against sixth-seeded Missouri), Oklahoma (against fifth-seeded Texas, itself on safer NCAA footing) and Texas Tech (likely needing a miracle against second-seeded Oklahoma State).
Big East (Piscataway, N.J.): Upsets already shook up the Big East, with both Notre Dame and Georgetown losing at home in the quarterfinals. That opens the door for Marquette to sweep both the regular season and tournament titles and make at least a case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament (even if a No. 2 seed remains a more likely goal). Both Connecticut and South Florida greatly enhanced their bubble résumés by reaching the semifinals (I have both in for now), but another win wouldn't hurt matters.
SEC (Orange Beach, Ala.): The biggest game of the tournament may be Wednesday's quarterfinal between Auburn and Georgia. Both teams could get at-large bids anyway, but the loser will have to sweat, particularly if it's the Bulldogs, who lost at home to the Tigers on Oct. 24. Tennessee's late-season surge makes the Lady Vols a team to watch, but with just two top-50 RPI wins (Auburn and Georgia) they may need at least a quarterfinal win against LSU and a semifinal upset to have at-large hopes for the NCAA tournament. As with Marquette, Florida can make a case for a No. 1 seed by sweeping the regular-season and conference tournament titles.
Conference USA (Orlando): Central Florida and Memphis enter as the top seeds and tied in the regular season. Both seem safe for the NCAA tournament, although UCF may have an outside shot at one of the top 16 seeds if it wins the tournament and gets a few breaks elsewhere. Plenty of other teams (SMU and Houston chief among them) are good enough to upset things, but all probably need to if they want to make the NCAA tournament.
Bubble Bursters: Keep an eye on the top seeds in the Colonial Athletic Association (Hofstra), Big West (UC Irvine) and Southern (UNC-Greensboro). All three are good enough to merit at-large bids to the NCAA tournament should they lose in their respective conference tournaments, which would in turn knock someone else off the bubble. Hofstra and UC Irvine host their four-team conference tournaments, while UNC-Greensboro travels to Western Carolina (the hosts did not qualify for the quarterfinals, which were held last weekend).
Elsewhere: There's no tournament in the Big Ten, but Michigan's trip to Penn State on Sunday could prove to be one of the weekend's most interesting games. If Ohio State loses or draws against Michigan State on Friday, Penn State could be playing for a miraculous conference title, while Michigan improved its at-large hopes with recent wins against Minnesota and Illinois.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Oregon State was a surprise in the NCAA tournament last season. The Beavers may have lost a few weapons on offense, but they're still a force to be reckoned with.