- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It sounds like a strange thing to say about a College Cup that features three teams from the same conference and four No. 1 seeds, but never has the final weekend of the soccer season offered such a nod to the notion of upward mobility.
For so many years an aristocracy, women's college soccer enters an age more suited to Horatio Alger on Friday.
Work hard and play the game the right way for long enough and the resources exist in an ever-deepening talent pool to claim your just reward. For Duke and Wake Forest, programs that blossomed even in the enormous shadow cast by a neighboring empire, the reward is Friday's second semifinal and a chance for the winner to play for a national championship.
Just so we're clear, this isn't Cinderella crashing the ball in a hastily conjured carriage. This is starting a carriage-building company in your garage, developing a distribution network serving fairy godmothers everywhere and eventually cornering the entire conveyance market. Duke and Wake Forest are new to this stage, the Blue Devils here for the first time since 1992 and the Demon Deacons for the first time ever, but they earned their way as No. 1 seeds. They are young teams built for the long haul, and all indications are they plan on coming back.
Parity is partly the prospect of any team beating any other team on a given day, as a slew of upsets in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament demonstrated. But there's still a place for the best team winning in the end. It's just that as the game grows, the best teams aren't necessarily going to be those we've grown accustomed to seeing hold the trophy.
All of this isn't just about the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons, of course. For the first time since the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1982, all four semifinalists seek their first NCAA title (a fact that would have remained true even if the result in any of the four quarterfinal games had gone the other way). No College Cup in the past decade has featured fewer combined semifinal appearances from its participants, just 11 between these four teams. In the other semifinal, Florida State and Stanford aren't exactly strangers to the surroundings, each program making its fifth appearance in the College Cup, but even they are part of the sea change that will see one member of this quartet become just the eighth team to win a title.
It's just that Duke and Wake Forest jointly occupy a unique place in the soccer landscape, figuratively and literally. Much of the numerical history above comes down to the presence of the University of North Carolina, the behemoth with 20 NCAA championships and 25 College Cup appearances. So much of the history of women's college soccer comes from Chapel Hill that the future visible in Durham and Winston-Salem stands out that much more in contrast.
"I think North Carolina has made us all better in our conference," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "North Carolina has made us all work harder. North Carolina made us all recruit harder on the road, train harder. They set the bar very, very high for this conference for many years. I think everybody in this conference has a lot of respect for them. I think even though they're not there, they've played a pretty big part in all the other teams getting there. I can't speak for Florida State and I can't speak for Wake Forest, but I definitely can speak for us, and I think their dominance in women's soccer, you've got to respect that. But you also want to be at that level."
When Tony da Luz took over at Wake Forest prior to the 1998 season, the Demon Deacons had been to the NCAA tournament just twice and had been outscored 33-0 in six games against North Carolina. When Church coached his first game at Duke in 2001, North Carolina was already in possession of 16 NCAA championships. Every college program in the country measured themselves against the Tar Heels, but doing it within the borders of the same state and the confines of the same conference was like opening a coffeehouse next to Starbucks headquarters.
Wake Forest midfielder Kristen Meier grew up in Alpharetta, Ga., closer to Clemson, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wake Forest than North Carolina. But dynasties don't rely on regional appeal.
"Probably like most little girls, I was definitely a UNC soccer fan, ironically enough," Meier said.
What's changing is that more and more girls who grew up cheering for the Tar Heels are going to college with the soccer skills necessary to beat the Tar Heels. Girls like Meier, who wanted to play in the ACC and liked what she heard from da Luz about being part of a program with some history (he's never missed the NCAA tournament).
Part of rising to the top involves getting the best players, just as making good on the Alger myth requires more than simply pulling on bootstraps. The Demon Deacons took a major step toward championship contention last season when they added goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe and forwards Katie Stengel and Rachel Nuzzolese, recruits well regarded enough to have been teammates on the United States under-18 national team. The Blue Devils beat out the rival Tar Heels for star recruits in back-to-back years, adding Durham product Mollie Pathman last season and Alaskan Kelly Cobb this season. But part of it also involves two coaches who are very good at what they do getting an opportunity to bring out the star in other players, those like Meier or Duke goalkeeper Tara Campbell.
There was a time when the talent pool was only deep enough to support a rotating cast of five or six elite teams, but if that time is not gone entirely, its days are dwindling.
"It's much deeper than it was," Church said of the talent pool now compared to when he arrived in 2001. "I think there's a certain level of player out there, the highest level of player. And then underneath that group of players there's a ton of just really, really good players. The top level is deeper than its ever been. But that second-level player, very close to the top level, that number is just really, really deep. And if you can get them in your system and they can fit in your system and work hard, those players can really help carry you a long ways."
They have carried the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons to within two wins of a national championship. And considering neither team is likely to start a single senior Friday night, this isn't likely to be the last opportunity on either bench.
As the College Cup begins, it's remarkable to think the sport has reached a point where three ACC teams could be here without North Carolina, which was eliminated in the third round, being one of them. By the end of the night Friday, all that history will be secondary. Duke and Wake Forest, like Florida State and Stanford, have earned the spotlight.
"I don't think too much about UNC not being there," da Luz said. "I'd much rather just focus on who's there. And hopefully everyone else in the country will focus on the teams that are there and not the ones that are not."
If they do, they'll catch a glimpse of the future.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Cinderella this is not; Duke and Wake Forest are both No. 1 seeds and expected to reach the College Cup. But there's still a dash of upward mobility for two teams, which have operated in a giant's shadow for so long, looking to validate their success with a national title appearance.