NEWTON, Mass. -- It will be a game between neighbors when Boston College and Boston University meet in the first round of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament at the Newton Soccer Field on Friday. But what hangs in the balance is more meaningful than local bragging rights.
For No. 2 seed Boston College, a season that began with national championship aspirations can’t continue without first defending local supremacy. For Boston University, it’s a chance to show the rest of the country there is more than one successful soccer program in this town.
Even by the standards of a rivalry between the schools that extends across all sports, there is no shortage of familiarity between these two teams. The Eagles and Terriers play each other in the regular season (BC won 1-0 on Sept. 4), and postseason meetings are about as regular a fixture on the calendar as Red Sox vs. Yankees in the baseball playoffs. Because of the nature of NCAA postseason tournaments in Olympic sports, in which geography plays a significant role in determining opponents for the first two rounds (the objective being to limit trips requiring flights), the two Boston schools are frequently placed in the same pod of four teams for the first two rounds. Friday’s game will be their third NCAA tournament meeting in the past six seasons.
Increasingly a national power since moving to the ACC in 2005, Boston College has won eight of the nine total games between the two during those six most recent seasons. Yet only two of those games were decided by more than one goal. And while it can claim underdog status in Friday’s encounter, Boston University enters on the strength of 13 consecutive shutouts, tied for the second best mark in NCAA history, and having already broken the program record for goals scored in a single season with 49 through 21 games.
“We have a lot of respect for BU,” Boston College coach Alison Foley said. “I think it’s one of the hardest first-game draws for a seeded team because I think BU is that good. We’re very familiar with them, and that’s why we respect them. We know they’re really organized; they’re obviously a great defensive team, in terms of they’re on their 13th consecutive shutout.
“They have a lot of players that we’re familiar with, just because it’s a lot of local kids, so we’ve seen them through the recruiting process,” said Foley.
No coach is ever going to say her team lucked out with an easy draw, but as the statistics suggest, Foley isn’t just offering platitudes. In the last RPI rankings publicly released by the NCAA (the week before the end of the season), Boston University was No. 44. Among the top eight seeded teams in the NCAA tournament, only fellow No. 2 seed Virginia faces another team in the first round that even ranked in the top 100 (at No. 88).
Boston University, which closed the season ranked one spot behind Boston College at No. 17 in the Soccer America Top 25, does have the lowest RPI ranking of the four teams competing in Newton, a group that also includes Connecticut and Hofstra. But even if she knew her team was almost certainly headed for the venue, Boston University coach Nancy Feldman wasn’t expecting to see the host team quite so soon.
“I was a little surprised and disappointed,” Feldman said. “But we’ve taken it as a challenge. We told our players we’ve got to prove it on the field. We’re from a mid-major conference -- as well as we scheduled this year, as hard as our schedule was, our RPI was still 40-something. And we’ve played [No. 1 overall seed] Stanford and BC and Washington and UConn. We couldn’t have scheduled much tougher out of conference, so there’s nothing else we can do, except win NCAA games. That’s going to change the perception of our program and maybe the perception of some of the mid-majors overall.”
Feldman has done more than enough in her time at Boston University to merit interest from programs in bigger conferences. But the Needham native has instead remained in Boston to tend to the dynasty that began soon after she started the Terriers varsity program from scratch 16 seasons ago, making nine trips to the NCAA tournament since 2000 and twice reaching the second round.
This season’s team is the most statistically dominant of the bunch, but it might also be the biggest surprise. Boston University lost five starters from last season but found the retooling process enhanced by a pair of transfers. A two-time all-conference selection in the Patriot League at Holy Cross, New Hampshire native Katherine Donnelly has helped anchor a back line that has allowed just 10 goals all season. Lisa Kevorkian thought her soccer career was over after playing her last game as a senior at California last season, but utilizing an NCAA rule that gave her another season of eligibility while taking graduate courses in communications (she redshirted one season at California), she is instead the Terriers’ leading scorer with 14 goals and a key figure in the development of Jessica Luscinski, her partner at forward who won American East Striker of the Year honors.
"It’s like they’ve played together and been together and been teammates and pals for a long time,” Feldman said. “From the time they both worked my summer camp in July, they just became fast friends. And I think Lisa has been an outstanding mentor to Jess. I think Jess has grown a lot because of the Lisa effect.”
For its part, favored Boston College isn't interested in aiding Boston University's quest for recognition. The Eagles gained revenge for one of their regular-season losses with a 1-0 win over Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament before losing to Maryland by the same 1-0 score in the semifinals. Those games also gave Foley an extended look at freshmen Kate McCarthy and Zoe Lomabrd, two top recruits who may just be hitting their stride after struggling to find minutes in the regular season. McCarthy will start in the midfield in Friday's game, and the extra depth will be pivotal for the Eagles, who will be without stellar center back Alyssa Pember all weekend after the junior suffered a high ankle sprain in practice this week.
Both teams might have preferred to avoid a renewal of the rivalry with stakes such as these. They definitely would have preferred to avoid it in the first round. But the result is a game with meaning on any number of levels, perhaps best summed up by someone still learning about the rivalry after living a lifetime in California.
“When we drew BC again for this game tomorrow, everybody went crazy in the room when we saw them on TV,” Kevorkian said. “People were just like, ‘Think of it as your Stanford.’ ”
Kevorkian might have needed the comparison point, but at least in the world of women’s college soccer, nobody needs help understanding how big Friday’s Boston derby is.