Entering the season's final stretch

With two weeks remaining until the NCAA tournament selection committee works its magic, it's time to ponder some questions on the season so far.

1. Is La Salle the biggest surprise in a season defined by them?

One look at the top 25 reveals this is not a typical season in women's college soccer. Notre Dame, Portland and Florida State? You won't find them in the rankings or even receiving votes. Instead, teams like No. 4 Pepperdine, No. 5 Marquette, No. 9 Memphis and No. 10 Wisconsin-Milwaukee are showing little respect for the established order.

But even in a climate of change, one of the remarkable success stories is hiding in plain sight.

When La Salle didn't allow a goal against Delaware, Drexel, Rider and Northeastern to open the season, going 3-0-1 in those games, it marked just the second time in program history the Explorers kept clean sheets in four consecutive games. Then they went out and did it again in their fifth game. And their sixth game. And on down the line until nationally ranked Dayton finally pushed a goal across in the 75th minute on Oct. 7 -- La Salle's 12th game.

Behind senior goalkeeper Melissa Sanger, senior center back Jess Hopton and a whole lot of youth, La Salle has surrendered just three goals en route to a 13-0-1 record and the inside track on a first NCAA tournament appearance.

Not bad considering defense wasn't even supposed to be this team's strength.

"I never had the expectations that we would have defended as well as we have to date," La Salle coach Paul Royal said. "Losing a couple of kids to injury in the preseason, I've been saying I expected us to win games 4-3, 3-2 because we had a really high-powered offense."

That offense remains a big part of why a team that regularly starts as many as eight freshmen and sophomores likely isn't a one-hit wonder and should be an uncomfortable draw for someone early in the postseason. Freshman Kelsey Haycook (12 goals) and sophomore Renee Washington (nine goals) are big, athletic forwards with a flair for the dramatic. After Dayton broke the streak, Washington tied the game six minutes later and converted a penalty kick for the win in overtime.

For La Salle this season, even the offense starts with defense.

"Whenever you get forwards that defend just as hard as your defenders, you're going to put a lot of pressure on the other team," Royal said of a team ranked 26th nationally in scoring offense. "That's where we've been generating a lot of our goals, because our forward pressure has been unbelievable. Kelsey Haycook gets a lot of notoriety because of goal scoring, but at the end of the day, she works harder defensively than anyone on the field."

2. Is Memphis ready to take the next step?

La Salle is one of six unbeaten teams in the nation, joining No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Pepperdine, No. 9 Memphis and Hartford (only Oklahoma State also remains untied).

Of that group, no program has come as far as quickly as Memphis.

It wasn't until 2005 that Memphis posted a winning record in Conference USA, a decade after the program first took the field in women's soccer. By 2007, the Tigers swept the regular season and conference tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time. That was the energy the current senior class signed up for.

"We wanted to be at a program where they were getting better and better," senior defender Lizzy Simonin said. "We didn't want to be at the best school. We wanted to help the team keep improving. My freshman year, they had just won conference the year before, and we just wanted to keep improving and keep building this program to where we are right now."

A finalist for the Lowe's Senior Class Award, Simonin is one big reason the Tigers are one of just six teams to rank in the top 20 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Conference USA Freshman of the Year as a forward, she shifted to defense as a junior and has five goals and four assists this season while anchoring the back line.

Sunday's road game at Central Florida is unmistakably important, but win, lose or draw, proving the program belongs on the national stage is going to come down to the NCAA tournament. In four trips, Memphis has yet to taste victory, including a humbling 5-0 loss to Oregon State last year.

Tennessee is a good SEC program enjoying another solid season, but the South remains largely unconquered territory waiting for programs to stake out empires. A regular season without a loss is a good way to further the cause. A postseason win would be even better.

"That's been haunting us for the last four years," Simonin said. "At the beginning of the year, that was one of our goals was to win the first game in the NCAA tournament."

3. Which teams need to make the most of the next two weeks?

Kansas: It's difficult to miss the NCAA tournament with a top-30 RPI, but No. 29 Kansas has work to do. Early wins against USC and Purdue have lost some luster, and the wrong end of a 15-4 margin against Dayton, Florida and Oklahoma State won't help appearances. Sweep Iowa State, Missouri and Oklahoma to close the regular season and win a Big 12 tournament game, and we'll talk.

Georgetown/Louisville: The top two teams in the Big East National Division are on slightly shaky ground in the RPI, with matching wins against Notre Dame the only victories against RPI top-50 teams for either team. Nothing until at least the conference tournament semifinals will change that.

Ohio State: From the College Cup to the bubble, Ohio State must win this weekend at Michigan State (four spots ahead of the Buckeyes in the RPI) and make a run in the Big Ten tournament, which is back from a two-year hiatus.

Oregon State: The polls and the RPI don't agree on the Beavers, ranked No. 23 in the NSCAA Top 25 and No. 58 in the RPI. The latter usually wins comes NCAA tournament time, but the Beavers get three chances at home to beat higher-ranked RPI teams Washington State, Stanford and California.

4. Who leads the Hermann Trophy race?

Aren't there any easier questions? Some trigonometry, maybe? Five candidates, in alphabetical order, for what may be the toughest race in years to handicap.

Sarah Hagen, F, Milwaukee: She leads the nation in goals per game, and the senior is doing so for a team soaring to new heights. Forget the Horizon League label; a national scoring leader on a top-10 team is Hermann material.

Bianca Henninger, GK, Santa Clara: Goalkeepers just don't win the Hermann on the women's side, but there has to be a first, right? Santa Clara's offense is improved this season, but the team's revived fortunes begin with Henninger.

Maegan Kelly, F, Marquette: She wasn't a household name when the season started, but she's the only player in a major conference with double-digit goals (14) and assists (10), and she's doing it for a top-five team.

Teresa Noyola, MF, Stanford: The statistics don't resemble those compiled by Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press the past two seasons, but the field is more wide open this time around. As the key playmaker on the nation's best team, Noyola could make it three Hermann wins in a row for Stanford.

Katie Stengel, F, Wake Forest: A knee injury that kept her out of the past two games against North Carolina and Duke may push her out of the mix, but no player has finished as consistently in the nation's toughest conference.

5. Is the road to San Diego a good idea?

How about a cautious yes? It was announced this week that the Women's College Cup will return to California for the first time since 2000 when the University of San Diego hosts next year's event. Getting the college game's signature weekend back to the West Coast is long overdue, no matter how good a job Cary, N.C., and College Station, Texas, did hosting the past seven College Cups (or how good a show Kennesaw State puts on this December in its first hosting duty). But hosting the College Cup at Torero Stadium, with a current soccer capacity listed at 6,000, is curious. An NCAA representative confirmed additional temporary bleachers will bring capacity "close to 8,000," but that would still seem to set an artificial cap considering the championship game averaged 8,514 fans over the past decade.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @grahamhays.

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