Category archive: North Carolina Tar Heels
Andy Mead/Icon SMICasey Nogueira and the UNC seniors won their third national championship Sunday.
On Sunday, the seniors ensured it will forever be only a footnote.
"All of us knew we had come to Carolina to win," defender Whitney Engen said of that long-ago day. "And here we had lost our first game of the season. And I think to come full circle, and to win our last game here, it meant a lot to a lot of us. And I think the legacy that we want to leave on this program is that, you know, we pride ourselves in being a family. We pride ourselves in caring so much about one another."
Struggling this season after losing one of those seniors, Nikki Washington, to a season-ending injury (in an unfortunate twist, North Carolina's long postseason run still left the Tar Heels one game shy of what would be required for Washington to qualify for a redshirt, based on the percentage of games in which she appeared), the Tar Heels didn't look like champions after back-to-back October losses against Florida State and Miami.
But as after the Texas A&M loss, which was followed by 27 consecutive wins, adversity helped this collection of players find their footing.
"These girls come in, they know the standards of the program and all of a sudden, their first game, they've lost," coach Anson Dorrance said of the Texas A&M defeat. "They all feel this pressure. It's not like we're talking about it, but they all know the legacy.
"So what we basically talked about on the bus [after the Florida State and Miami losses this season] is, 'You know what? Don't play with that burden. Don't play with the burden of this enormous amount of pressure.' And all of a sudden, what happened in practice that week is I could sense the girls starting to come back a bit."
Fittingly, it was left to Casey Nogueira -- the heroine of so many postseason moments in her four seasons, but also a carefree personality so difficult to fit into the mold of driven, intense North Carolina legends -- to provide the final word.
"I just wanted to thank Anson personally and publicly for the way he handles any loss or any setback we've had in our four years," Nogueira said. "Because he has such a sophistication and such a kind of calmness. And when we lose, he doesn't freak out and make us do tons of fitness. He actually encourages us and calms us down and tells us we're going to be fine."
One of the greatest senior classes in the history of a program with plenty of competition for that title came a long way in four years. All the way to where it started.
"In America, it's a lot more intense and everyone's more up for it," Bronze said on Sept. 4 after playing 33 uneventful minutes off the bench in a 6-0 win. "Whereas in England, it's a lot harder to train because of money and facilities and stuff. Whereas everyone in America supports the soccer teams, so you've got more facilities, more time, lots of things English teams don't have."
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMILucy Bronze's training in England gave her different strengths than most of her teammates.
The intensity was on full display Friday night in the national semifinal rematch, as were the instincts of a player raised in a soccer culture that American training regimens have not yet duplicated. In UNC's 1-0 victory, Bronze's beautiful run down the right side, fed by Tobin Heath, set up Casey Nogueira's winning goal in the final 10 minutes.
After the game, UNC coach Anson Dorrance said the Tar Heels originally recruited Bronze, who attended camps in Chapel Hill from the time she was 12 years old, to play defense and warned her that meant she'd see little time behind a veteran back line this season. But with Nikki Washington's season-ending injury, Bronze began getting time in the midfield. Her three NCAA tournament goals before Friday's assist demonstrate a decided knack for the big stage.
"But the interesting thing that Lucy gives us out there, and we keep nagging our girls about, is if we can get the kids in this country to watch the [English Premier League], more of the highest level of the game on a regular basis, they're going to gain a polish and sophistication that just playing the game will never give you," Dorrance said. "The thing that Lucy Bronze has -- she's not the most athletic player on the field, she's not the strongest, she's not the most skillful, but she has a savvy that she has because she's just brought up watching the EPL."
Despite drawing a pair of Fighting Irish defenders on her late run, Bronze still managed to get the ball to the end line and deliver a perfect cross to Nogueira in front of goal.
"It wasn't like she sprinted by her -- the defender stepped and she could sense the defender's momentum was moving toward her and then she touched it by her," Dorrance said. "I mean, that's an elite move. And then she just, again, she didn't run away from the girl that was tracking her; she just kept touching it, touching it, touching it.
"We took a lot of shots in that game and we couldn't score, but she made sure the pass that she gave gave us a shot inside four yards with the goalkeeper eliminated."
• North Carolina's famous three-player back line will get as stiff a test from Stanford forwards Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor in Sunday's championship game (ESPN2, ESPN360.com at 1 p.m. ET). Dorrance's defense relies on pressure up front and three players, plus keeper Ashlyn Harris, to breach whatever leaks develop in the channels sometimes available without a fourth defender.
Dorrance is a leading proponent of teams' playing with three forwards in the women's game, even if it's in a 4-3-3 formation like Stanford's that still offers a more traditional back line. All the while, he knows it could come back to bite him.
Whether or not that's the case Sunday will hinge on Whitney Engen, Rachel Givan, Kristi Eveland and Harris.
"The majority of losses we have in our history have been against three-fronts," Dorrance said. "And certainly the three-front that Stanford's going to throw at us, with pace and skill at all three positions is going to present a wonderful challenge.
"But you know, this isn't life or death for me or the girls. This is a sport. It's going to be a spectacle. There's going to be a lot of attacking, and I think that's what our game needs."
All four times the Fighting Irish came up short. Three times Waldrum came up against that aforementioned program. And all three times North Carolina came away with one-goal wins, the most recent was Friday's 1-0 semifinal result.
AP Photo/Bob Levey Notre Dame fought but couldn't pull off a win against North Carolina in the College Cup on Friday.
Since 2006, Notre Dame is 2-1 against North Carolina in settings other than the College Cup. It is 0-3 over that same span in that most meaningful setting.
In truth, this was never going to be the year the Fighting Irish solved their College Cup jinx against the Tar Heels. Waldrum's team is young, and if the early-season 6-0 home loss against North Carolina was a misleading score, it wasn't by much. Getting the pieces to match the puzzle well enough to make a fourth consecutive trip here was an accomplishment of its own, and arguably Waldrum's best coaching job in South Bend.
And he wasn't beating around the bush about the would-have-been or could-have-been aspects of a semifinal that remained scoreless until the final minutes.
"They deserved to win tonight," Waldrum said of the Tar Heels in a refrain he reiterated with some feeling more than once. "They were clearly the better team tonight."
Waldrum also went on to say that North Carolina remains the standard every program is trying to reach. But that's not quite the same thing as saying his program should be judged against the standard of North Carolina's entire history. The three one-goal losses in the past four years are distinct from all the titles North Carolina won before.
"I don't want you guys to write this in a negative way because it's not negative, but I'm not sure there's not a lot of other teams in the country now that are equally as good," Waldrum said of the North Carolina program. "I think you've got to look to look at Carolina in the first 20, 25 years of what they've done, and I think you look at Carolina in the last 10 years -- or five or six years or whatever the case may be -- and I think you've got a lot of teams that can boast of a lot of success against them in the last few years.
"They're always going to be good; they're always going to win and compete for national championships. But I think there's a lot of good programs in the country, and because of their history, we'll always -- everybody will always be kind of judged against that."
But in Waldrum's eyes, the gap has closed to the point where North Carolina's history -- ancient and more modern -- doesn't necessarily offer a road map for a future that begins next season with a team loaded with returning talent.
"I thought then, in the early years I was [at Notre Dame], back in the late '90s and the early 2000s, I thought they were clearly better," Waldrum said. "I just thought the gap was still pretty large. We didn't have the depth to compete with them. I thought we had probably, you know, 11, 12 players that could compete. But if it had to go deeper -- which you have to go deeper against Carolina because they use so many different players -- I felt the gap was a lot larger then.
"But I think our history has been great with them the last -- probably since about 2006. I think our kids at that point have realized that they can compete with them."
Hopefully all involved enjoyed it while it lasted.
Friday's forecast in College Station calls for temperatures never reaching 40 degrees, with a strong possibility of snow showers and sleet in the afternoon (clearing by about the time of the second women's national semifinal, between North Carolina and Notre Dame).
During the morning's chilly but dry proceedings, UCLA coach Jillian Ellis joked about her team packing its thermals for this trip. Stanford's Ali Riley gave thanks for the warmth of the interview room and teammate Kelley O'Hara plopped down on the carpet to stretch, rather than venture outside.
But comedic overtones aside, the weather could be the only new entrant in the Women's College Cup this year (although it was getting close to frigid in Cary, N.C., last year, it was at least dry). As she guided her team through some light work on the field, Ellis warned that certain passes that might otherwise be delivered aerially would have to be made on the ground with force if the field was slick.
It's one intriguing variable for coaches who know each other extremely well.
"If its incredibly slick, you've got to be a bit more conservative in your supporting distance," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance explained. "You've got to be a bit more conservative in the goal, you've got to be a bit more careful basically clearing the ball. So all the elements of a slick surface are brought to bear. I think there are going to be some adjustments being made based on the conditions on Friday."
And at least one team might not even mind a little taste of home-field advantage.
"Come on snow; bring the snow," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum deadpanned. "Just pound us tomorrow; we're OK with that, absolutely."
• North Carolina didn't maintain dominant form in those early wins against UCLA and Notre Dame -- but considering who the Tar Heels played without, the relative ease with which they still made it to yet another College Cup may be more impressive.
A player who Dorrance has repeatedly called one of the best leaders he's ever had -- a bold suggestion he reiterated Thursday -- Ali Hawkins is almost as a good a talent as a leader. She missed the team's regular-season finale, three games in the ACC tournament and the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament with a sprained knee but returned to play 28 minutes off the bench against Wake Forest last weekend.
"If the season were a couple of weeks longer, I think we'd get her back to 100 percent," Dorrance said. "But she did some great things in practice this week.
"It's really interesting -- I've been using her as a role model for our focus and finishing. She's just a very focused individual."
• Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe is a man of few words.
It could be said that he makes Bill Belichick look loquacious.
It could be said he make haikus look longwinded.
You get the picture. This is the entirety of his opening statement Thursday.
"We're excited to be back to the final four, and we're looking forward to strong competition."
Fascinating. But Ratcliffe, who is generally no more forthcoming with praise, made a rather bold statement -- briefly, of course -- by saying senior Kelley O'Hara is the best player in women's college soccer at the moment. By his standards, it was a stunner.
O'Hara's reaction to the effusive (and accurate) plaudits? She said she gave him five dollars before they got to the podium to say something nice about her.
For the first time since 1986, the previous year's field returns intact. The only difference Friday, 12 months after North Carolina beat Stanford and Notre Dame beat UCLA in the 2008 semifinals, is the draw: Stanford and UCLA meet in a Pac-10 rematch and North Carolina and Notre Dame meet in a rematch of both last season's championship game and a 6-0 win for the Tar Heels in South Bend three months ago.
Earlier this season: North Carolina pounced on early Notre Dame mistakes at the first game in the Fighting Irish's new stadium on Sept. 4. Courtney Jones scored the first goal just 23 seconds in, off assists from Casey Nogueira and Tobin Heath, and the Tar Heels led 3-0 inside of 30 minutes. North Carolina's back line was fantastic throughout; Notre Dame's Melissa Henderson finished the game with no shots and few opportunities.
"It's just a loss at the end of the day," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said at the time. "None of us are happy with how it went and the kind of loss it was, especially at home opening the stadium with a great crowd. But we'll look back a month from now and it will just be a loss on the record. It's not going to make or break us where we want to be at the end. And I'll relish an opportunity to get to play them again at the end of the year."
North Carolina player to watch: Casey Nogueira
It would be fitting if Nogueira closed a perpetually intriguing career with a third national title. After a very quiet regular season that included two appearances off the bench, she's scored six of her 12 total goals (and accumulated four of her nine assists) in North Carolina's seven games across the ACC and NCAA tournaments. It seems she was born for the big stage.
Notre Dame player to watch: Lauren Fowlkes
Things started to turn around for Notre Dame, which followed the loss to North Carolina with losses against Santa Clara and Stanford in California, when Waldrum moved Fowlkes to forward. As versatile as any player who will be in Texas, she could star on the back line or in midfield. But as a forward, she's found chemistry with Henderson and forced opponents to play both honestly. At 5-foot-10, she's literally a huge problem for opponents on set pieces.
Earlier this season: The Cardinal broke a 15-year drought by reaching the College Cup last season, but it wasn't until this season that they staked a claim to Pac-10 supremacy by beating UCLA for the first time since 2002. The first goal in that 2-0 home win in October didn't come until there was less than 20 minutes to play -- and it came on an own goal -- but Stanford controlled the run of play throughout the game.
"We've been looking forward to this game since we got here in August," senior Ali Riley said after the win. "Three years now, for the seniors, we've lost to UCLA, and this is so important and this is the No. 3 team -- this is like a Final Four game. So it was a huge win for us."
Stanford player to watch: Kelley O'Hara
The Pavarotti of Stanford's star-studded triumvirate up top, O'Hara has scored 25 goals in 24 games this season alongside Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor. Actually, a better comparison for the 5-foot-5 O'Hara might be Manny Pacquiao; she's gifted, relentless and simply not a lot of fun to be up against in tight confines on a soccer field.
UCLA player to watch: Sydney Leroux
I saw the Bruins at both of their low points this season, the losses at Stanford and at North Carolina, and still came away shaking my head at how good a finisher Leroux is in her second season (she missed last season's College Cup while earning top scoring honors for the United States at the Under-20 World Cup). She already shares the single-season program record with 23 goals this season and is too strong to knock off the ball and too fast to contain.
In a tournament with few surprising results to date, no team will have the element of surprise on its side in the quarters.
No. 1 STANFORD vs. No. 2 BOSTON COLLEGE
Stanford profile: The Cardinal have the best front line in the country, although it overshadows a solid lineup from back to front. Senior forward Kelley O'Hara has emerged this season as the Hermann Trophy front-runner, but opponents find it hard to key on her with Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor alongside. When the midfield gets itself involved consistently, which isn't always the case, the Cardinal are almost impossible to defend.
Boston College profile: Likewise, an attacking third loaded with recognizable names overshadows a strong, composed back line and an athletic keeper. Freshmen Kristen Mewis and Victoria DiMartino might be the two most talented players, but there is plenty of experienced skill, including senior playmaker Gina DiMartino, Victoria's sister. Outside back Hannah Cerrone is valuable going forward and will need to balance that against measuring the Cardinal forwards.
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 PORTLAND
UCLA profile: The Bruins have quietly been steamrolling opponents of late. In their past eight games, including three NCAA tournament games and four other games against NCAA tournament teams, they've put together a 29-4 edge on the scoreboard. A case could be made that forward Sydney Leroux has been the nation's best player over the past month.
Portland profile: You don't lose a Hermann contender like Michelle Enyeart -- injured in the final game of the regular season -- and continue without skipping a beat, but Portland has come close in putting up 10 goals through the first three rounds. There is speed all over the field, particularly on the flanks with players such as Kendra Chandhoke, and forward Danielle Foxhoven is as technical and polished a finisher as there is in the tournament.
No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA vs. No. 3 WAKE FOREST
North Carolina profile: The defending champion obliterated UCLA and Notre Dame 7-2 and 6-0, respectively, but had it share of ups and downs. Without injured speedster Nikki Washington, Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira remain the most dangerous playmakers. Since allowing four goals in back-to-back losses at Florida State and Miami, a defense keyed by Whitney Engen, Rachel Givan and Kristi Eveland has posted eight consecutive clean sheets.
Wake Forest profile: Outscored 8-7 in their last five games before the NCAA tournament, the Demon Deacons have regained their defensive touch and found the luck any team needs in the postseason (advancing past South Carolina on a last-second header in the third round). Junior keeper Amanda Barasha has been solid since taking over the starting role following the team's 4-0 loss at North Carolina in late September.
No. 1 FLORIDA STATE vs. No. 2 NOTRE DAME
Florida State profile: Goal scorers always get the lion's share of attention, but Tiffany McCarty and Jessica Price deserve every bit of it. And a midfield that includes Amanda DeCosta and Becky Edwards can hold its own on any field. It's a young back line, regularly starting two freshmen and two sophomores, but it's a group with experience at both the college and international level.
Notre Dame profile: Moving Lauren Fowlkes up top proved the move that brought Randy Waldrum's lineup together after a slow start to the season. A less high-profile development, having Haley Ford available (she played 90 minutes in the third-round win against Oregon State after battling injuries for much of the past month) further solidifies an improving defense.
The tournament's top overall seed going into the first weekend lived up to the billing. The Cardinal piled up chance after chance in a 2-0 first-round win against Northern Arizona that could easily have produced crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
Third round: vs. 4-seed Santa Clara
2. Florida State
A 3-0 win over California in the second round was the kind of statement that at least momentarily separates the Seminoles from the teams to follow below. Cal matched the Seminoles shot for shot, but that only provided keeper Erin McNulty with a chance to show Florida State has all parts of the field covered.
Third round: vs. Texas A&M
The Pilots demolished Denver in the first round, no small feat against a better team than most of the high seeds faced, but needed a late Halley Kremenski goal (her second of the game) to get by Washington in the second round. Unlike the first meeting between the Pilots and Huskies this season, the WCC champs held a dominant edge on shots (23-3) and corner kicks (10-3), suggesting the offense still has kick without Michelle Enyeart.
Third round: vs. 3-seed Virginia Tech
4. North Carolina
A 1-0 first-round win against High Point raised eyebrows, but a 4-0 win against Georgia on Sunday returned them to their normal resting places.
Third round: vs. 4-seed Maryland
First, the bad news: UCLA fell behind early in its first NCAA tournament game this postseason. Of course, the good news is it scored the next 12 goals in a pair of romps against Boise State and San Diego State.
Third round: vs. Virginia
6. Notre Dame
Perhaps the beneficiary of the lone notable first-round upset, with Central Michigan knocking off Purdue, Notre Dame rolled past IUPUI and Central Michigan by an 11-1 margin. Melissa Henderson scored a mere six times.
Third round: vs. Oregon State
7. Boston College
The Eagles won the unofficial New England derby, knocking off Harvard and Connecticut to advance to the Sweet 16. But it's getting past the next round that has the attention of a team that has made the third round in five of the past six seasons.
Third round: vs. Wisconsin (location TBD)
8. South Carolina
South Carolina's defense is back, adding a pair of shutouts to a run that began with strong showing the SEC tournament semifinal and final. It's good to have a hot hand at keeper in the postseason, and Mollie Patton's mittens are sizzling at the moment.
Third round: vs. 3-seed Wake Forest
9. Wake Forest
It was an uneventful weekend for the Demon Deacons, exactly what they needed to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999. Junior Casey Luckhurst scored three times -- the first three goals of her Wake Forest career.
Third round: at 2-seed South Carolina
The Cavs may not be higher than No. 10, but no team did anything more impressive than Virginia in putting up six goals in 20 minutes to erase a 2-0 deficit in a second-round game against Penn State in State College, Pa.
Third round: at 1-seed UCLA
11. Santa Clara
The Broncos needed three overtime periods and a penalty shootout to get past Michigan State and Oklahoma State, but they're back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. They've scored one or fewer goals in eight of their past 10 games, but they're officially 6-2-2 in that stretch.
Third round: 1-seed Stanford
12. Texas A&M
The Aggies have just one clean sheet in their past five games, but they proved resilient in the NCAA tournament, scoring twice early to take control against Memphis in the first round and outlasting LSU in penalty kicks (with four conversions in four attempts) in Baton Rouge in the second round.
Third round: at 1-seed Florida State
13. Oregon State
Beat Ohio State on its home field in the first round and No. 3 seed Florida in overtime in the second round. Not too shabby for a virtual NCAA tournament neophyte.
Third round: at 2-seed Notre Dame
The Terrapins did no wrong in the first two rounds, routing Monmouth and shutting out Washington State 1-0 in the second round. So is this too ranking low? Perhaps, but that three-game losing streak to enter the NCAA tournament is hard to forget.
Third round: at 1-seed North Carolina
15. Virginia Tech
The offense re-awakened against Murray State and Dayton. A 3-1 win against the Flyers in Dayton was especially impressive for a team that is 3-3 in true road games.
Third round: at 2-seed Portland
Not a team that's going to be uncomfortable in low-scoring games. Wisconsin outlasted Arizona State in penalty kicks and protected a first-half goal for a long time in a 1-0 second-round win against Central Florida.
Third round: vs. 2-seed Boston College (location TBD)
"One of the most bizarre games I've ever been a part of in 33 years of coaching," Dorrance said.
The Tar Heels remained undefeated on the season (although for only about 72 hours, after a 1-0 loss at Virginia Tech on Sunday) by virtue of a 2-1 win that included two second-half penalty kicks off Boston College handballs. Both whistles appeared questionable, bordering on dubious, but it's always easy to armchair-quarterback a referee. And in this case, while the result is important in the race for eventual NCAA tournament seeding, it may not be as telling as the game.
Back-to-back, one-goal losses against Florida State and North Carolina notwithstanding, Boston College is a legitimate threat to make the trip to Texas for the College Cup.
"Two great teams, and in my opinion, maybe two top-four teams, battling it out in a very exciting game," Dorrance said. "The other thing I really respect about BC is they attack. Most teams we play bunker back and try and keep the score low. But they had no compunction but to go forward at every opportunity, and they're very dangerous going forward. They have talent all over the field, and I have a lot of respect for them and the way they played against us."
Two years ago, North Carolina escaped a trip to Massachusetts with a 2-1 overtime win on a cross from Meghan Klingenberg that fortune guided into the back of the net. But far more than was the case that night, the Eagles seized opportunities Thursday night to take the game to the opponent, something they can do because of a front five every bit the equal of North Carolina, Stanford, Portland and any other team you want to throw in the mix.
In Gina DeMartino, who missed parts of last season because of obligations to the Under-20 national team, sophomore Julia Bouchelle and senior Brooke Knowlton, the Eagles had a base of offensive talent returning this fall. But the addition of freshmen Victoria DiMartino (Gina's sister) and Kristen Mewis took things to a level that made Thursday's game so compelling.
"Both of them, obviously, have played in a lot of big games, both coming off the U-17 World Cup as two of the top scorers for the U.S. team," Boston College coach Alison Kulik said of her freshmen a week and a half before the North Carolina game. "And they're as proficient as two finishers that I've ever seen and that we've ever had in the program. That certainly has added to our attack. They're two of the reasons why you've seen -- because they're great servers of the ball, too -- why you've seen us score so many multiple-goal games."
Nobody flusters North Carolina's back line of Whitney Engen, Kristi Eveland and Rachel Givan, but Boston College isolated and pushed them to the edge repeatedly Thursday night.
The Pac-10 and West Coast Conference, demonstrating that coast's admirable ability to take life at a more leisurely pace, don't start conference play for another couple of weeks. But putting those two leagues aside for the moment, how do things look elsewhere?
Sadly, Neil Patrick Harris wasn't available to host, so you're stuck with me.
Early test: Boston College at Florida State, Sunday
Is North Carolina vulnerable after Sunday's 0-0 tie against Auburn? Don't bet on it -- the only two goals the Tar Heels have allowed all season came opening night at the end of a 7-2 rout against UCLA on a sloppy field. But this game in Tallahassee will be a showdown of perhaps the two teams best equipped to challenge the defending champs. After seeing the Eagles on Sunday, I'd put a midfield of Gina DiMartino, Julia Bouchelle and Kristen Mewis up against any group out there.
September surprise: Easily Maryland, which has a 1-0 win against Santa Clara to validate an 8-0-0 start. The Terrapins actually get first crack at the Seminoles, as they'll visit Tallahassee on Thursday.
Early test: Kansas at Oklahoma State, Sunday
The Jayhawks got off to a fast start last season but finished under .500 in conference play, including a 1-3-1 record away from Lawrence. Oklahoma State is the defending conference champion but dropped its conference opener against Colorado (the lone Big 12 game played thus far). Texas A&M still seems like the class of the league, especially after beating Portland 3-1 this past weekend, but Sunday's game in Stillwater is a chance for the Jayhawks to show they're a real challenger and the Cowgirls to show they're not ready to be deposed.
September surprise: At this point, we know more about most Big 12 teams' ability to schedule advantageously than their ability to play great soccer, but Nebraska's prolific offense -- paced by freshman Morgan Marlborough's 13 goals -- is worth noting.
Early test: Rutgers at Georgetown, Friday
Georgetown produced the most emphatic result of the first Big East weekend, drubbing Villanova 4-0 (although the Hoyas then tied Penn 3-3 on Sunday). Like Santa Clara's Jordan Angeli, Georgetown's Sara Jordan returned for a sixth year after an injury-plagued career and has helped in tangible (four goals, four assists) and intangible ways.
September surprise: Minus a lost weekend in Philadelphia (defeats to Drexel and Penn), Pitt has enjoyed a banner September, capped by a win at Ohio State and a tie against West Virginia this past weekend in Morgantown, always a tough stop for Big East teams.
Early test: Penn State at Michigan State, Sunday
The Spartans were 7-0-1 entering Sunday's 1-1 draw at Eastern Michigan, but the result raises questions, given the caliber of opponent in many of those wins. The good news is they get a shot at instant credibility against Penn State. The Nittany Lions took the opposite route early, persevering through six consecutive one-goal games, including four losses, against likely NCAA tournament teams before breezing past Boston University and James Madison.
September surprise: Indiana reached the Sweet 16 two years ago, so surprise is a little strong, but the Hoosiers, at 8-1-0, including a win against Florida, are perhaps ahead of schedule.
Early test: Georgia at LSU, Friday
Two familiar conference contenders in recent seasons open this year's conference slate. After a disappointing opening loss at home against Memphis, the Tigers have shown a lot of fight, including a 1-0 loss against North Carolina and 2-2 tie against Duke this past weekend. Georgia has played a good schedule, albeit one short on ranked opponents, and will look to return the favor after LSU beat it in Athens last season. (The Bulldogs are 14-4-0 since that loss.)
September surprise: South Carolina is the undefeated SEC team with championship aspirations, but forget the quality of the schedule and give Mississippi State full marks for an 8-0-0 start. That's more wins than in any of the past four full seasons.
In less time than Sylvia Hatchell's basketball Tar Heels might take to get off a shot, Courtney Jones put home a cross from Tobin Heath in the opening minute of North Carolina's eventual 6-0 rout of the Fighting Irish on Friday in the first women's game at new Alumni Stadium.
7-2 and 6-0.
Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics Notre Dame's Alumni Stadium is a sight to be seen.
Those are the scores North Carolina has posted against first UCLA and now Notre Dame.
Independent of each other, either result might be an anomaly; they certainly don't spell the end of either losing team's season. But those two score lines against those two teams make it easier to envision this North Carolina team as one of historical consequence.
"You're always afraid to talk about that because this game is so bizarre," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance cautioned after Friday's game. As if on cue, the Tar Heels then dominated possession against Marquette on Sunday but needed a phenomenal second-half shot from freshman Alyssa Rich to escape with a 1-0 win.
But against the best teams, the Tar Heels already show a gear no other team possesses.
"I think what we're trying to do is we're trying to play the game as fast as we can," Dorrance continued. "And obviously the role models we're given are the [English Premier League] teams. I mean, they play at a pace that is just unfathomable.
"We've gotten our kids to watch the EPL a bit, and I think they can get a sense of what the potential of the women's game is. That's our standard. We want to play as fast as Arsenal and some of the top teams in the world, and I think at times we do. And obviously, there's no comparison -- I don't pretend that we would ever be on the field with a team of that caliber. We are trying to play at that speed; we're trying to play the game at a sprint."
• Time and again during the weekend, North Carolina's Whitney Engen showed why, in my mind, she's the best defender in the country. She's also a relative newcomer to the back line in college, having played forward her first two seasons in Chapel Hill. Might Lauren Fowlkes, a midfielder far more often than a member of the back line in her first two seasons at Notre Dame, follow a similar path to becoming one of the game's best defenders?
Fighting Irish coach Randy Waldrum is still in full tinkering mode while looking for the right fits to replace players such as Kerri Hanks, Brittany Bock (who represented the alumni in the stands Sunday), Carrie Dew and Elise Weber. And while there are no guarantees the lineup next weekend against Santa Clara and Stanford will look the same as it did Sunday, he seemed to find something worth trying again with Fowlkes at center back and familiar defender Jessica Schuveiller pushed forward into the midfield.
"I thought it was much better today for all three of those," Waldrum said of Fowlkes, Schuveiller and defender Hayley Ford. "They're all three key people for us, but the question is how do you get those three good players on the field that's going to be the best for you. And I think in some instances, we're still trying to find out way in some positions."
Like Engen, Fowlkes is physically gifted, mentally tough and relentless. And if she finds a home anchoring the back line, one need only look at the Tar Heels to see the impact it could have.