Los Angeles Soccer: Scott Juniper
November, 6, 2011
By Scott French | ESPNLosAngeles.com
UC Irvine has been here before, with a home game against their mightiest rival with an NCAA tournament berth, or at least an automatic berth, there for the taking.
Long Beach State knocked off the Anteaters last year, merely a hiccup en route to UCI's program-best round-of-16 appearance, and the 49ers are the opposition again Sunday in the Big West Conference tournament championship game.
The 24th-ranked Anteaters (14-3-2) will be home for the noon clash. Win or lose, they figure to make the NCAA field, and Long Beach (14-5-1) might be through regardless, too.
“You never know,” Anteaters coach Scott Juniper said on the eve of the match. “I think it looks likely [that we'll make it], and Long Beach has had a great season and put themselves in a great spot. The conference deserves two.”
The Big West usually has been underrated, especially by the NCAA, which relies far too heavily on RPI, a mechanism that doesn't really work when the sampling of interregional matches is so small. The regionalization of the NCAA bracket leads to too many first- and second-round matchups with the UCLAs, Stanfords and Santa Claras, giving the conference little opportunity to demonstrate its quality.
This year could be different. Long Beach State has a vibrant attack guided by wing-forward Nadia Link (Rowland Heights/Walnut HS) and central midfielder Shawna Gordon (Rancho Cucamonga/Los Osos HS). UC Irvine has a lock-down defense led by All-American CoCo Goodson and an offense sparked by UCLA transfer Natalia Ledezma (La Mirada/La Mirada HS), a U.S. youth national teams veteran.
“I knew this team could be as good as the team from last year, if not better,” said Juniper, whose Anteaters went 19-2-2 in 2010. “What's different and better is we got more experience and we have more confidence through the fact that we have more experience in the later stages [of the season].”
UCI has won seven in a row, six of them by shutout -- surrendering just 2½ shots on goal on average -- after a stretch of six games in which it conceded two or three goals five times. Juniper said the answer was to “go back to basics,” and Goodson, fellow center back Sarah Devine and top-class holding midfielder Judy Christopher (Ontario/Upland HS) responded with strong performances.
Ledezma has scored 12 goals with eight assists and is seeing her partnership with Lexi Kopf, who has 11 goals, reaching fruition as the NCAA tournament nears. Nice timing.
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