If a soccer team is going to fly under the radar, it doesn't hurt to reside in the ACC, a league that can be as cluttered as air traffic on the day before Thanksgiving. So for the second time in as many years, Duke quietly finds itself one game from the College Cup.
The other four teams to advance as far as the quarterfinals in the past two postseasons reads like a cheat sheet on the sport's glamour programs: Florida State, Notre Dame, Portland and UCLA.
And then there's Duke.
Whether it ends for the Blue Devils next week against UCLA or at some point in Cary, N.C., this season will mark the ninth time in the past decade that Duke finished with a winning record. But it's a program that has never advanced past the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. Coach Robbie Church's teams have always been good, but in a sport in which North Carolina's shadow still stretches coast to coast, finding room to shine has been especially difficult for the program that trains and plays just a few miles down the road.
Three years ago, a senior-laden Duke team watched its 14-win season end prematurely when Yale scored a goal with one second on the clock in a second-round game in New Haven, Conn. From that disappointment, Church began to build anew. He brought in a freshman class the next season that Soccer Buzz rated third-best in the country and had the eighth-best class in 2007. He suffered the growing pains commonly associated with reloading, though, from 10 one-goal losses spread across the 2006 and 2007 seasons to 11 ties -- including five 0-0 ties -- in the same span.
Things started to turn this past season, when the Blue Devils survived a first-round penalty shootout against South Carolina and scored six goals in four NCAA tournament games, finally bowing out with a 3-2 loss at Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. But the real payoff came in Saturday's 2-0 win against Virginia that propelled Duke into the quarterfinals against UCLA. Instead of slipping through the bracket by beating a Cinderella as it did in the third round the past season against Indiana, Duke went on the road and beat a conference rival on its own field. The Blue Devils hadn't scored a goal against the Cavaliers since 2005 and hadn't won at Virginia since 2004.
Stanford 1, Rutgers 0
It's tough to imagine a less representative final score than Stanford's scoreboard squeaker that wasn't clinched until Kelley O'Hara put home the winner in the 85th minute. Because for much of Friday's third-round game, the action looked less like the normal give and take of soccer than a protracted siege of Rutgers' 18-yard box.
All told, the ball girls behind Scarlet Knights keeper Erin Guthrie got a much better workout than Stanford keeper Kira Maker on a night when the Cardinal fired off 26 shots. And even if the score was surprising, marking Stanford's first one-goal win of the season and just the sixth time it has failed to score at least three goals, the method was familiar.
In 2003, coach Paul Ratcliffe's first season at Stanford after a successful run at Saint Mary's, the Cardinal scored 25 goals and posted a 10-9-2 record before exiting in the first round of the NCAA tournament. What has followed is a steady upward progression in the scoring column, matched by the results on the field. And with 70 goals this season and enough offensive depth to have moved New Zealand international Ali Riley to outside back, where she remains a dangerous weapon pushing forward, Stanford was eventually going to break through against the Scarlet Knights. An attack featuring O'Hara, Lindsay Taylor, Christen Press, Teresa Noyola and Camille Levin, may be the deepest one remaining in the field as it heads into a quarterfinal matchup with No. 2 Portland.
Notre Dame 1, Minnesota 0 (OT)
Drawing any conclusion from this game is dicey business, but not nearly as dicey as the conditions appeared to be in South Bend on Friday. With torso-high snow banks surrounding the field, large patches of sand where grass should have been and players slipping and stumbling like a slapstick audition, it was evident even from the safe distance of the online video feed that the game was more about survival than soccer.
The Fighting Irish still did a good job of controlling the offensive flow, even before Kerri Hanks drew and converted the game-winning penalty kick in overtime. Melissa Henderson, Texas roots and all, beat the cold and conditions to continue showing glimpses of the skills that could make her the breakout performer of this season's tournament. That's more important than ever because, as much as Notre Dame has the depth to survive it, Brittany Bock's absence weighs heavily.
Third on the team in goals (6) and second in assists (9), Bock is a significant part of the team's attack, for the obvious reasons that she's among the nation's best players in the air and a versatile go-between in the middle of the field. But there's also the less obvious impact she has in understanding how to play with Hanks better than anyone else.
Bock has been at less than full strength much of the season, and entering the game against Minnesota, coach Randy Waldrum told the South Bend Tribune of her current knee woes, "Right now it's just you plan on making the run without her, and if you get her, you get her. It's not anything that requires surgery, there's no structural damage. It's just the soreness that's in it has got to get out before she can go."
Portland 3, James Madison 2
Credit James Madison for a strong showing in one of the toughest road trips in college soccer (in addition to the distance involved in getting from Virginia to Oregon, Portland extended its NCAA single-season attendance record to 47,082 with Saturday's sellout). The Dukes held up far better to the challenge than Tennessee a year ago, when the Lady Vols lost 3-0 while being outshot 28-8 at Portland in the third round. For Portland, Danielle Foxhoven (goal, two assists) continues to shine as a freshman.
North Carolina 3, Illinois 0
North Carolina keeps rolling along as stealthily as can be for a program with 18 NCAA championships and a No. 1 seed this season. Part of that may be because the Tar Heels have yet to face championship-caliber competition after adding a 3-0 win against unseeded Illinois to easy shutouts against Western Carolina and Charlotte in the first two rounds. But far from coasting, the Tar Heels have accelerated through the first three games, getting goals from eight players while conceding just nine shots in 270 minutes.
UCLA 1, USC 0
UCLA's leading goal scorer this season isn't American international Lauren Cheney, Canadian international Kara Lang or All-American Christina DiMartino. As Pac-10 rival USC can surely attest, it's Kristina Larsen. The junior scored the lone goal against the Women of Troy on Saturday, giving her all three of her team's goals in two wins against USC this season. And despite playing arguably the toughest cumulative slate in the second and third rounds, the Bruins came through with another clean sheet, the team's fourth in a row and 19th this season.
Texas A&M 2, Florida 1
Texas A&M football squares off against rival Texas on Thanksgiving, but in beating Florida on the pitch, the women's soccer team ensured that won't be the school's only familiar foe this week. Beginning three seasons ago, when the Aggies opened the 2006 season with a 1-0 double overtime win against North Carolina, the two programs have played four memorable one-goal games. Setting up a fifth meeting in Friday's quarterfinal required goals from Laura Grace Robinson and Jennifer Kmezich to overcome an early 1-0 deficit against the Gators in Gainesville -- the sixth game in the past nine in which the Aggies trailed.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.