With top four seeds, College Cup a tough ticket

December, 4, 2008
CARY, N.C. -- Getting to the Women's College Cup proved to be an impossible ticket for any team that didn't earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps as a result of Goliath's strength this postseason, Friday's heavyweight doubleheader pitting Notre Dame against Stanford and North Carolina against UCLA could be one of the toughest tickets in memory for fans. That's bad news for late buyers but good news for the game.

"We're going to make it as a sport when you can't get a ticket," North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said during Thursday's news conference.

And this week, at least, Dorrance finds himself playing the Grinch when people call in search of passage into WakeMed Soccer Park for the conclusion of the college season. He'd help if he could, but even 18 NCAA titles won't buy tickets that don't exist.

For the first time since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 2001, the top four national seeds advanced to the semifinals. Three of them will lose this weekend, which is one more loss than the four entrants combined have suffered up to this point.

"This is an extraordinary field," Dorrance said a day earlier. "I've been doing this a long time; this might be the best Notre Dame team I've ever seen. I haven't played UCLA yet, but on paper, it looks like a pretty extraordinary team -- maybe the best UCLA team. And I'm pretty convinced this is the best Stanford team. So you've got these other three teams coming in that might be at their program's peak of all time."

Or as UCLA coach Jillian Ellis put it, "I'm not a betting woman, but I think it would be hard to nail down a favorite for this weekend."

Almost as tough as getting in to watch it unfold.

Notes from Media Day
• Even with Thursday's forecast calling for temperatures inching beyond 60 degrees, a persistent breeze and general morning chilliness had people in the interview tent pulling closer and closer into an orbit around portable patio heaters. Waiting after her time on the podium, UCLA senior McCall Zerboni appeared permanently attached to one outpost of warmth.

"I'm glad you've got a heated tent," Ellis joked in her opening remarks.

But for Notre Dame, the conditions were positively tropical compared to the past two weekends of soccer in South Bend. A snowstorm before the team's third-round game against Minnesota turned the field into what looked like an indoor soccer facility, with massive snow banks ringing it. That the game took place at all was a testament to the skill of the school's grounds crew, but it wasn't exactly a perfect pitch for either that game or the quarterfinal against Florida State the following weekend.

"The frozen tundra of South Bend," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum joked. "The job the folks here have done with this facility is phenomenal. The practice field, I wish we could have moved up to South Bend a few weeks ago."

Space heaters aside, the conditions here in Cary bode well for the Fighting Irish, who saw their high-powered finishing touch falter in part because of terrific defenses from Minnesota and Florida State, but also in part because grass is a better surface for soccer than permafrost.

"One thing I'm proud about is the players had to play through some really adverse situations," Waldrum said. "And I thought we handled it very, very well. And I think any time you've got a good team … and things don't go your way, whether it's field conditions, whether it's officiating, whether it's the opponent or whatever, you have to be able to get through those moments. And so far, we've been very good at that."

• For four players, the College Cup marks the end of a journey that extended well beyond domestic borders. UCLA's Kara Lang (Canada) and Lauren Cheney (United States), UNC's Tobin Heath (U.S.) and Stanford's Ali Riley (New Zealand) all played for their respective senior national sides in the Beijing Olympics (a repeat trip to China for Lang and Riley, who also played in the World Cup there the previous fall).

Still a junior in eligibility at UCLA, Lang is an old hand at playing for both country and college. She played for Canada at 15, becoming the youngest player in the world to score for a senior national team in an international match. The pride she takes in playing for Canada was readily apparent in the tears she couldn't hold back after the national team bowed out of the Olympics against the United States (and assistant coach Jill Ellis) in the quarterfinals. But while the experience reaching the College Cup is different, it's no less meaningful.

"It's very, very professional," Lang said of the international level. "Not to say this isn't professional, but there's also that aspect [in college] of being on a team with your peers and your friends. And I think that that kind of brings a different dynamic, where your team is very close. And it's kind of like a family because everybody -- you just get an opportunity to fight on the field with the people you hang out with on the weekends."

• Just like last year's College Cup in College Station, Texas, when USC had the shortest Media Day news conference by a healthy margin, relative newcomer Stanford (the Cardinal did make the College Cup in 1993, unlike complete newbie USC last season) had the shortest stay on the podium Thursday. And just like those Women of Troy, the Cardinal have a wealth of young talent whose names could be far more familiar by Sunday's news conference for the newly crowned national champions.

Coach Paul Ratcliffe wasn't quite the source of quips that USC coach Ali Khosroshahin proved to be in his debut, but there's reason to let his product do the talking. The Cardinal are the only team here with three double-digit goal scorers, and not one of them is a senior. Junior Kelley O'Hara, sophomore Christen Press and freshman Lindsay Taylor are the finishers on a team that UNC's Dorrance conceded had the better chances in a 1-1 draw against his Tar Heels in September.

"I think we have more weapons now," Ratcliffe said. "It's harder to key on certain players; goals are coming from a lot of different players. All three frontrunners right now are exceptional players. Midfield, we have a lot more creativity in the midfield. And then the back line has been strong the entire year. So we don't really have one or two superstars; this is a complete team."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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