Top seeds all reach NCAA quarterfinals
There are still two weekends and seven games to play in the college soccer season, but before a ball is kicked in the NCAA women's tournament quarterfinals, we know the College Cup will have a different look this season.
Florida State and Stanford are familiar faces hoping to return to the final weekend, but Wake Forest, Oklahoma State and Long Beach State are looking for a first trip to the semifinals. And while Central Florida, Duke and Virginia have been before, each team would like to make the trip for the first time in the lifetimes of many of its players.
Whatever happens, wild weekends during the second and third rounds guaranteed there will be a first-time champion crowned on Dec. 4 in Kennesaw, Ga.
How did we get to these quarterfinal matches?
Quarterfinal: No. 1 seed Duke vs. Long Beach State
Duke: The Blue Devils had little difficulty dispatching Georgia in the second round, scoring the first three goals of the game (the first courtesy of an own goal by the Bulldogs) en route to a 3-1 win. Ohio State proved more troublesome Sunday, as the Buckeyes carried a 1-0 lead into the second half before Kelly Cobb and Kaitlyn Kerr gave Duke a 2-1 win. Blue Devils coach Robbie Church talked early in the season about Kerr as the unsung midfield star behind three high-profile forwards, but four goals in the first three rounds is a good way to become sung.
Long Beach State: Just 0-2 in two previous trips to the NCAA tournament (2008, 2010), Long Beach State finds itself one game and about 400 miles from the College Cup as it heads to face Duke in Durham, N.C. The 49ers followed their big first-round upset against No. 3 Pepperdine with two more 1-0 wins in their own backyard, against Miami in the second round and San Diego in the third round in games hosted by UCLA.
Freshman substitute Ashley Roese scored the winner in the Sweet 16, her first goal of the season after playing just 95 minutes in eight appearances prior to her stint against San Diego.
Quarterfinal: No. 1 seed Florida State vs. No. 2 seed Virginia
Florida State: This doesn't look much like a sixth-place team at the moment, even if that's where Florida State finished in the ACC. The Seminoles beat Portland 3-1 in the second round, avenging an early-season loss to the Pilots, and blanked Louisville 2-0 in the third round. Both games were played in Memphis because of homecoming conflicts in Tallahassee. They get to play at home this week in a quarterfinal rubber match against Virginia, a team they beat 2-1 in the ACC tournament after a 4-3 overtime loss during the regular season.
Virginia: Virginia led all teams on the weekend with seven goals, beating Washington State 3-0 in the second round and Virginia Tech 4-0 in the third round. Freshman Morgan Brian and senior Lauren Alwine each scored a pair of goals over the two games. Already the school's all-time assists leader, Alwine also picked up two more to have a hand in four of seven goals.
Quarterfinal: No. 1 seed Stanford vs. No. 2 seed Oklahoma State
Stanford: Efficiently and quietly (would it kill the Cardinal to join the new century and stream their postseason games?), the nation's No. 1 overall team rolled right along. A pair of 2-0 wins against quality opposition (South Carolina in the second round and No. 4 Boston College in the third round) provided little in the way of drama but did make it three shutouts in three tries thus far in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal's goals came from four players, and they outshot their opponents 47-13, including 18-6 in shots on goal.
Oklahoma State: The Cowgirls pulled out back-to-back 1-0 wins at home, beating Illinois in the second round and Maryland in the third round. Sixth-year senior Annika Niemeier scored both goals, getting the winner against Maryland in the fourth minute after getting on the board against Illinois in the 25th minute. The Cowgirls will travel to Stanford for their second quarterfinal appearance in as many seasons and their second all time.
Quarterfinal: No. 1 seed Wake Forest vs. Central Florida
Wake Forest: It took the Demon Deacons nearly the full 90 minutes to solve the riddle of Boston University's defense in Friday's second-round match, but they didn't stop scoring the rest of the weekend. After two late goals provided a 2-0 win against the Terriers, Wake Forest beat Penn State 4-2 in the third round, scoring four unanswered goals after ceding the game's first tally. This marks the program's second quarterfinal appearance in three seasons, the only two such appearances it has.
Central Florida: It's the first season in which the second and third rounds were played the same weekend, but it's going to be be a long, long time until a team has a more impressive run in the format than unseeded Central Florida did in Gainesville. After beating No. 2 Florida 3-2 in the second round, the Golden Knights eliminated No. 3 North Carolina in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw. Central Florida surrendered leads in both games but came out with wins behind clutch goalkeeping from Brazilian Aline Reis and undaunted play (UCF was outshot just 24-19 over the two games).
Best team performance: Oklahoma State
This has very little to do with soccer, even for a team that recorded a pair of shutouts despite playing without one of its best defenders, Carson Michalowski, against Maryland. Sports were secondary in Stillwater following the plane crash last Thursday that took the life of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna, along with two others. And like so many on the campus, the soccer team had its share of connections to the tragedy. Senior Melinda Mercado played basketball for Budke as a freshman. And assistant coach Karen Hancock lost her husband, Will, in the plane crash 10 years ago following a men's basketball game at Colorado.
For the soccer players who were part of a larger university community dealing with a second fatal plane crash in a decade, the games could have reasonably represented a welcome escape from the shock, an unwanted intrusion on their grieving or just about any other emotional response. A loss would have been understandable. Two wins don't heal the real pain. But for whatever small corner of the big picture it occupies, the effort turned in said a lot about why people like Budke and Serna wanted to spend lives that should have lasted much longer around athletics.
Best individual performance: Chantel Jones, Virginia
Jones was slighted in this space last week after setting the NCAA career record for shutouts in a 2-0 win against Long Island in the first round, so we'll give top billing to extending that record with two more clean sheets against Washington State and Virginia Tech (granted, after the offensive display her teammates put on she would probably be the first to admit these weren't the toughest in her record run). It is a banner year for great college keepers, but when you look around the bracket at who is still standing, Jones is there with any of them.
Best intersection of soccer and history: Central Florida beating North Carolina
Central Florida may be one of two unseeded teams remaining in the bracket, but don't confuse that with newcomer status. The Golden Knights are one of only 17 programs to reach multiple College Cups, even if it has been awhile since those glory days in 1982 and 1987. So it was appropriate that a program that goes back to the beginning of North Carolina's NCAA dominance, losing to the Tar Heels in the 1982 title game, was responsible for adding some unwanted history to that program's annals. The Golden Knights became the first unseeded team to eliminate the Tar Heels, who have dropped their only two penalty shootouts in 120 games in NCAA tournament play (110-8-2).
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.