Bracket gaffes among top tournament story lines
USC knocked off top-seeded Santa Clara in the first round of the NCAA women's soccer tournament. Cinderella story or selection committee screw-up? Graham Hays votes for the latter.
If we're lucky, the final three weeks of the NCAA women's soccer tournament will belong to the players and coaches pursuing a championship, because opening weekend was as much about bad bureaucracy off the field as bad bounces on it.
Then again, at least USC and Santa Clara were in the field, no matter how baffling their places in the bracket. Oregon, fresh off a second-place finish in the Pac-10 and a win against UCLA in the final weekend of the season, didn't even get a chance to play. Instead, the Ducks watched as at-large teams like Louisville, seventh in points in the Big East; Michigan, tied for fifth in points in the Big Ten; and Auburn, fifth in points in the SEC, went down in defeat in the first round.
Either the selection process wildly and inexcusably misjudged the competitive quality of the teams involved -- especially with regard to the Pac-10 and West Coast Conferences -- or the bracket has become such a prisoner of financial and regional constraints as to reduce it to a mockery of competitive balance. Why seed any teams if those seedings are meaningless when it comes to picking opponents? Why have any at-large bids if geography appears to be as much a consideration as record?
USC wasn't a tournament favorite, to be sure. After opening the season ranked in most polls, including 17th in the Soccer Buzz preseason poll, coach Jim Millinder's team struggled with consistency and injuries throughout the season, eventually finishing fifth in conference play. But the Trojans were the only team from a major conference (Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC, WCC) to face one of the top eight seeds in the first round.
And no offense to programs that enjoyed tremendous success and may be building or sustaining a tradition of postseason appearances, but there is simply no way to look at the schedules and rosters of teams like Long Island, UNC Asheville, Oakland, Grambling, Jacksonville, Niagara or UNLV -- the seven other teams drawn against the top eight seeds -- and say Santa Clara got anything close to a fair shake in drawing USC in the first round.
The Broncos played the toughest schedule in the country this season, played it well enough to justifiably end up with a No. 1 seed, and were rewarded with far and away the toughest first-round game of any seeded team.
Keeping teams close to home whenever possible to minimize travel expenses, reduce missed class time and provide fans with motivation to buy tickets and attend games is a pragmatic objective for a sport without the revenue or drawing power of football and basketball.
But the key words ought to be whenever possible. If any group, and especially the NCAA, an organization which projects its 2006-07 revenues at $564 million, is going to stage a tournament and encourage players to dream of winning a national championship, then its first and foremost goal ought to be the integrity of the event.
Here's hoping the players on the 16 remaining teams give themselves and us memories to last a lifetime in the coming weeks, because the opening week included a lot of great soccer from athletes being overshadowed by the bad decisions of adults.
Ironically, the ultimate beneficiary of the Santa Clara-USC fiasco was another Pac-10 team. Instead of trying to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Broncos earlier in the season, Stanford got payback for a regular-season 0-0 tie with USC, knocking the Women of Troy out of the tournament two days after their monumental upset.
With both seeded teams in the top half of the quadrant out following Clemson's win against fourth-seeded Oklahoma State on Sunday, the Cardinal and Tigers will now square off in the closest thing this bracket has to a Cinderella showdown (Friday, 10 p.m. ET).
For the Cardinal, who boast a roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores, it's a chance to prove that the experts were a year slow in recognizing their ability.
Portland Proves Point with Points
The University of Portland had ample reason of its own to complain after not only being left entirely out of the seeding process -- despite spending the entire season ranked in the top 10 of every major poll -- but then being dispatched to Utah to play a first-round game against BYU and a second-round game against host and fourth-seeded Utah.
More important than proving NCAA officials wrong, Portland's weekend performance on offense ought to scare the daylights out of everyone left in the same quadrant of the bracket. Overcoming the loss of Megan Rapinoe to a knee injury earlier in the season, and the graduation of Christine Sinclair after last season's championship run, the Pilots put up five goals on the road, including three from junior Rachael Rapinoe.
Rachael didn't have as great an impact on the stat sheet in her first two seasons as her twin sister did in her debut last season (Megan redshirted the 2004 season to play in the Under-17 World Championships). Playing mostly on defense last season, Rachael appeared in nine games as a reserve. Opening this season on defense again, she didn't score in the team's first nine games. But after this weekend's flurry of finishes, she has seven goals in the team's last 13 games, during which she was playing up front in the wake of her sister's injury.
Rapinoe's emergence gives the Pilots another quality option in a diverse group of forwards and midfielders that includes Kendra Chandhoke, Natalie Budge, Angie Woznuk and Michelle Enyeart, recently named the nation's top freshman by Top Drawer Soccer.
With five goals this weekend and 15 goals in the last seven games, the Pilots are getting on the scoreboard at a time of year when goals are hard to come by. And with a defense still anchored by keeper Cori Alexander and outside back Stephanie Lopez, no offensive slouch herself, that's a scary thought for any opponent.
Florida State's Familiar Surroundings
Only six schools (North Carolina, Notre Dame, Portland, Santa Clara, Florida and George Mason) have won NCAA titles in women's soccer, but Florida State played its first two games in this year's tournament like a team capable of expanding that list.
After rolling over Jacksonville 6-0 on Friday, the Seminoles took a 3-0 lead in the first half of Sunday's game against Cal and cruised to a 3-1 win. Coach Mark Krikorian's team now moves to the third round for the third time in four years and has a chance to return to the tournament's final weekend -- the College Cup -- for the third time in four years. The highest remaining seed in their quadrant of the bracket after Santa Clara's loss, the Seminoles face Illinois next weekend (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET) before potentially playing as a heavy favorite against the winner of the Clemson-Stanford quarterfinal match.
And while the program's 2003 appearance in the College Cup is in some ways ancient history when it comes to sizing up this year's team (only current seniors India Trotter, Kelly Rowland and Toby Ranck played significant roles as freshmen on that team), last season's experience could be invaluable for some of the current key figures. Most notably, Krikorian and Sel Kuralay were in their first seasons in Tallahassee, and Trotter was playing her first season as a focal point of the offense after garnering honors as a defensive midfielder during her first two seasons.
Kuralay opened the scoring against Cal with a goal less than seven minutes in, and Trotter, who announced her arrival among the nation's elite finishers with five goals in last year's NCAA Tournament, effectively sealed the deal with a goal just four minutes later.
This year's team hasn't shown quite the scoring touch of the team that piled up 65 goals in 25 games last season, perhaps in part because of the absence of playmaking midfielder Viola Odebrecht, but Kuralay and Trotter are proven postseason finishers who have a year of experience playing as the primary focus of an opponent's game plan. While the two weren't exactly unknowns entering the postseason last year, they certainly won't be sneaking up on anyone this season. But if Sunday's game is any indication, that familiarity may do little more for defenders than inspire pregame nightmares.
With six international players on the roster, all of whom have experience with the youth or senior national teams of their respective nations, and several American-born players with international experience (Trotter, for instance, spent the summer training with Greg Ryan's senior national team), the Seminoles aren't short on big-game experience. But the experience from last season's run to the College Cup and eventual loss against UCLA may be what pushes this program to take the final step in its evolution.
Elsewhere in the "ACC Invitational"
Duke's shootout defeat after a valiant effort against Tennessee in Knoxville kept the opening weekend from producing the ACC's dream scenario, but the conference still accounts for a quarter of the teams remaining in the bracket.
As expected, North Carolina and Florida State advanced in convincing fashion, while Boston College offered a slightly more surprising result in surviving the wet weather in the Northeast on Sunday to outlast Rutgers in a shootout. But perhaps the most impressive performance came in a pair of rematches for Virginia, which knocked off well-regarded West Virginia in the first round after tying the Mountaineers during the regular season, and then beat conference rival Wake Forest for the second time this season on Sunday.
The Cavaliers were flying high at midseason after opening ACC play with wins against Wake Forest and Duke and a tie on the road against Florida State. But after stumbling in a trap game against Miami that came between games against Florida State and North Carolina, and losing the subsequent game against the Tar Heels on a wet night in Charlottesville, Virginia slipped off the national radar.
Losing to Wake in the first game of the ACC tournament, their third loss in four games, seemed to suggest the Cavaliers were headed for a quick postseason exit, but like the St. Louis Cardinals proved in baseball, it only matters how you play at the end of the season. And for both the Cardinals and Cavaliers, the end of the regular season didn't coincide with the end of the season.
After playing a scoreless first half in the first round against West Virginia, Virginia wasted little time seizing command of the game against Wake Forest, with leading scorer Jess Rostedt scoring in the seventh minute.
The Cavaliers won't go far without production from Rostedt, who nearly scored in the opening game, but the weekend hero might have been senior Kristen Weiss. After starting just once all season, Weiss scored the opening goal in Friday's win and gave the team some breathing room with the second goal on Sunday. Few players in this year's field were more due for a few magical moments than Weiss, who missed most or all of the 2002, 2003 and 2005 seasons with knee injuries.
Virginia now faces No. 2 seed Texas A&M in the third round (Friday, 7 p.m. ET), after the Aggies breezed past Grambling and SMU in the opening two rounds.
Penn State Marches On
Portland has received plenty of attention for trying to defend its national championship after the graduation of Christine Sinclair, arguably the greatest player in the history of women's college soccer. The spotlight shining on Penn State has been several watts dimmer, but the task at hand hasn't been much easier as the Nittany Lions move on without Tiffany Weimer.
Weimer scored 32 goals as a senior, leading the Nittany Lions to a 23-0-2 mark that fell just short of a title when they dropped a shootout to Sinclair and the Pilots in the semifinals of the College Cup. Logically, last season was the program's best chance for a national title. But one year later, the Nittany Lions are in the familiar surroundings of the third round for the eighth time in nine years. They may still lack the glitz of a top contender, but they're here, and they will be favored to beat Boston College this weekend.
The results weren't quite as impressive as last season, when the Nittany Lions piled up 11 goals in the first two rounds, but Friday's 3-1 win against Niagara and Sunday's 2-0 defeat of Villanova did the trick. And all season, the trick for Penn State has been matching last season's results without worrying about matching the method.
Last year's team scored 78 goals in 25 games; this year's team has just 47 through its first 24 games. Add up the total goals of the top four scorers on this year's roster and you get 32 goals, or what Weimer produced by herself last season.
Aubrey Aden-Buie leads the team with 11 goals, an impressive total for anyone not being compared to Weimer, but Sarah Dwyer and Jessie Davis scored the goals against Villanova and Ashley Myers scored a pair against Niagara. All in all, nine players have scored multiple goals this season, just one fewer than last season, suggesting the Nittany Lions still have balance, if not volume.
For much of the season, Penn State served as a proving ground for up-and-coming teams. After beating UCLA to open the season (while the Bruins were without both Danesha Adams and Lauren Cheney), the Nittany Lions lost to Texas, Illinois, West Virginia and Navy, while tying Tennessee and Texas A&M. Penn State was a work in progress. And perhaps more than serving as disappointing reminders of what was missing, those results prepared the team on the field to make a name of its own.
Weimer is gone, but one thing remains the same: The Nittany Lions look like a tough out after the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Some Texas A&M fans took umbrage with my suggestion last week that Texas might represent the Big 12's best hope of finally breaking through and reaching the College Cup. The Longhorns won the conference tournament and received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, beating Texas A&M along the way, but it was the Aggies who knocked off North Carolina in the season opener and proceeded to post a 9-1 record during conference play.
After scoring nine goals and pitching two shutouts against Grambling and SMU to advance to the Sweet 16, the Aggies are making their fans look pretty wise.
Playing at home in front of what are annually some of the most supportive crowds in the game, Texas A&M put together perhaps the most impressive opening two rounds in the tournament. The Aggies were credited with 39 shots, including 19 shots on goal, against an overmatched Grambling team that had just one shot all game. SMU fared only slightly better, getting its only shot of the game on goal and somehow holding the Aggies scoreless in the first half despite surrendering 27 shots, 14 shots on goal and 13 corner kicks in the game.
Junior Ashlee Pistorius, who while leading the team in scoring this season hasn't quite reached the levels of statistical excellence that saw her score 41 total goals in her first two seasons, looked more than ready to compete for top scoring honors in the postseason. Pistorius tallied the team's opening goal against Grambling in the first round and added two more against SMU in the second round.
And a defense that was tested against North Carolina, Santa Clara, UCLA, Penn State, Illinois and Cal State Fullerton (record in those games: 2-3-1) allowed just two shots all weekend.
Playing at home in College Station again next weekend, Texas A&M will be a solid favorite against Virginia. A win in that game would likely set up a rematch with North Carolina and a chance to reach the College Cup with the boldest of statements.
Longhorns Overcome, Advance
Adversity was everywhere Texas turned during the team's extended stay in Connecticut, dotting the New England landscape like church steeples, rolling hills and drivers who don't use their turn signals. But after surviving a weather postponement, a change of venue and a fluke goal in the span of 24 hours, the Longhorns headed home with the program's first two road wins in six NCAA Tournament appearances and its second trip to the Sweet 16.
Texas, which won the Big 12 tournament title in a penalty-kick shootout against Colorado to help earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, downed Connecticut 3-1 in penalty kicks on Monday after the teams played to a 1-1 draw in regulation and overtime.
Originally scheduled to be played on Sunday afternoon on the campus of the University of Connecticut, the game was postponed by inclement weather on Sunday and then moved to the University of Hartford on Monday in hopes of finding better conditions on that school's artificial surface.
"I think both Lenny [UConn coach Len Tsantiris] and I felt whatever could produce the best game would be the place that we would go," Texas coach Chris Petrucelli said. "And I think we both felt that the field over at UConn would have been a mud pit today, you couldn't play too much soccer on it."
As it turned out, the pitch at Yousef Al-Marzook Field helped almost send the Longhorns home early. After taking a 1-0 lead early in the second half on Kasey Moore's fourth goal of the season, a header from the back post off a corner kick from Stephanie Logterman, the Longhorns seemed to seize control of the game's tempo. But a seemingly innocent Connecticut free kick just inside the midfield stripe evened the score when miscommunication among Texas' back line left keeper Dianna Pfenninger unable to corral the ball as it bounced high off the artificial surface and into the back of the net. It was the first game of the year on artificial turf for the Longhorns.
"We can grow grass all year round," Petrucelli joked after the game.
Scoreless through both overtime periods, the Longhorns eventually claimed the win after two Connecticut players hit the left post with their shots in the shootout. Senior Amy Burlingham put away the winning kick, but the most memorable conversion in a crazy weekend came from senior keeper Dana Hall, who after sitting on the bench for all 110 minutes of regulation and overtime, converted a penalty kick for Texas' third goal of the shootout.
Portland awaits in the third round in what should be the toughest test yet for the Longhorns. It was the Pilots who traveled to Austin in 2004 to end the program's only other Sweet 16 appearance. But after their weekend adventure in Connecticut, even squaring off against the defending champs may seem like a relief.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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