- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Just how much the landscape of college soccer continues changing will be on display when Ohio State coach Lori Walker sends her team onto the field at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus on Friday to try to earn a trip to a place she knows well.
It's not yet clear which teams will make the delivery, but change is coming to the College Cup.
When Walker helped guide North Carolina to a championship in 1989 as a player, sporting a spotless 0.00 goals-against average as the starting goalkeeper, the road to glory never left the confines of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area -- it didn't have time to. North Carolina needed just three wins (outscoring Hartford, NC State and Colorado College by a combined score of 13-0) to clinch that title, the fourth of what would be nine straight championships and 20 overall under the NCAA banner. The path definitely didn't lead through a place like Columbus, Ohio, where one of the biggest athletic programs in the country wouldn't field a women's soccer team until 1993.
Now, 17 years after first taking the field and 14 seasons after Walker took over a program with a 23-31-3 all-time record and transformed it into a perennial Big Ten contender, Ohio State is one win away from a trip to Cary, N.C., and its first College Cup. It's the same position Georgetown, Ohio State's opponent this Friday, finds itself in. And it's the same opportunity facing Boston College, Oklahoma State and Washington this weekend. In a tournament of upsets, only three of the top eight seeds remain standing for the quarterfinals and a minimum of two first-timers will travel to Cary. Two No. 1 seeds, Portland and Maryland, were eliminated during the first weekend. A third joined them when North Carolina suffered a 4-1 loss against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16, the first time in 607 games that the Tar Heels had lost by more than a single goal.
The face of women's college soccer still resides in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels brought home the past two championships. But this November is a reminder that the game's body is growing ever stronger.
"I've watched it really grow and I've kind of been a part of that," Walker said. "It's amazing how different it is now. There were four or five schools back then that were just tremendous, and then it fell off considerably from there. And now, I think that this tournament is very exciting."
The first-round byes are gone, the field has increased to 64 teams and with few exceptions, every round is a fight for seeded and unseeded teams alike. Through the first three rounds this season, 23 games were decided by a single goal or went to penalty kicks after a draw.
To advance, a team needs to be good but it also needs to be resilient, tough and willing to weather the bad moments long enough to seize opportunity when it arrives.
In short, it needs to act a little like Buckeyes senior defender Cassie Dickerson.
No Ohio State player has logged more minutes on the field over the past two season than Dickerson, including all 306 minutes this postseason in a 1-0 double-overtime win against St. Francis in the first round, a penalty shootout win against Dayton after a 0-0 draw in the second round and a 3-2 win on the road at No. 2 Virginia in the third round. That's quite a change of circumstance for a player who missed what would have been her freshman season in 2007 after she tore the ACL in her right knee, then tore the other ACL after that season and finally tore the ACL in the right knee again minutes into the third game of the 2008 season.
By her third season in Columbus, she had as many ACL tears as career appearances. But she kept coming back and over the past two seasons helped anchor a defense that allowed just 27 goals in 42 games (she missed the team's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Oregon State last season after sustaining an ankle injury in the final game of the regular season).
"To sit out and rehab for three straight years, it just changes you," Waker said. "She values every minute she gets to play. This is her first NCAA championships that she's been able to play in. So there's just a maturity about her, but yet there's also that excitement to her, that, 'Hey, this is my first, as well.' So from a leadership perspective she walks that fine line between helping organize and being the business-type leader with, 'Hey, let's not forget we're playing soccer here, and we're having a great time -- because this is a gift.'"
Ohio State has progressed this far in the tournament once before, reaching the quarterfinals in 2004. That team was an offensive juggernaut, scoring 62 goals in 26 games, a program record that still stands. The current team is not cut in the same mold, finding its rhythm on offense against Virginia behind the likes of midfield playmaker Lauren Steuer and forwards Lauren Granberg, Paige Maxwell and Tiffany Cameron, but generally grinding out wins: 1-0 in overtime against Penn State, 1-0 at home against Wisconsin, 2-1 in overtime at Minnesota and 1-0 at home against Michigan State with a conference title on the line.
It may need more of the same against Georgetown, unseeded but rolling after eliminating Maryland on the No. 1 seed's home field in the second round and Minnesota on that team's home field in the third round. Hoyas midfielder Ingrid Wells (nine goals, 10 assists) surely ranks as one of the five or six best offensive talents left in the draw, and a perfect partner for her up top in junior Camille Trujillo.
But if it comes down to which team makes the most of its moments, the Buckeyes at least have a good blueprint. Dickerson has two years of eligibility remaining because of the injuries but the physical toll and the lure of law school may lead her away from the field after this season. Either way, as this postseason proves, the present is what matters.
"Our team absolutely looks up to her," Walker said. "Watching her rehab for three straight years, everyone respects the heck out of what she's done and the decisions she's made. She's just an inspiration to all of us."
The rest of the quarterfinals
No. 2 Florida State at No. 1 Stanford: The one bit of calm amidst the storm of upsets, the top two seeds collide in the only meeting of programs that have both been to the College Cup before. The Seminoles have turned out some great offenses under Mark Krikorian's watch, including the Mami Yamaguchi-led team that played for a championship in 2007 after scoring 17 goals in its first five NCAA tournament games. But even with this season's attack heating up of late, scoring eight goals against Middle Tennessee, South Florida and Marquette -- its best three-game output since before Labor Day -- defense may determine what happens. Led by center back Toni Pressley, the Seminoles have already played five of the top 25 offenses in the nation, allowing just five goals in those games. But Stanford has scored multiple goals in every game this season since an opening 1-1 draw at Boston College, including 39 goals in 12 home games.
No. 4 Notre Dame at No. 3 Oklahoma State: It's a battle of home-field advantage against postseason experience, as the only remaining program with a national championship (two of them, in fact, including one under Randy Waldrum's watch) travels to Stillwater to face a Cowgirls team on the verge of becoming the Big 12's first College Cup representative. After a lackluster close to the regular season (by Notre Dame standards, of course) and an opening-game loss in the Big East tournament dropped them all the way down to a No. 4 seed, the Fighting Irish proceeded to play like the No. 1 seed for which they were in the running most of the fall. For its part, Oklahoma State seemed likely out of luck to host in the later rounds after a rough trip to Texas at the end of the regular season, but upsets have paved the way for the Cowgirls to remain at home, where they haven't lost or tied this season -- or since Oct. 9 of last season, for that matter. Star strikers Melissa Henderson, three goals for Notre Dame, and Krista Lopez, two goals for Oklahoma State, are in top form.
Washington at No. 2 Boston College: A year ago, Boston College reached the quarterfinals for the first time but had to travel across the country over the holiday week to play a high-powered offense. Now the roles are largely reversed, although the Huskies do have one previous quarterfinal appearance in 2004 (when they traveled east and lost to Princeton). Washington's Jorden LaFontaine-Kussmann has been arguably the tournament's best keeper, not just for her performance in the 11-round penalty shootout win against No. 1 Portland but also 22 saves overall and just one goal against in the run of play. The Huskies were outshot in five of their first seven Pac-10 games, but other than the Portland game in the second round, they've turned the tables of late, getting off more shots than USC or Washington State to close the regular season, as well as Oklahoma in the first round and UC Irvine in the Sweet 16. That will be a challenge against Boston College, which has largely controlled possession ever since a poor first half in its first-round win against Boston University.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.