NEWTON, Mass. -- Even in a game between two teams ranked in the top 10, Kristen Mewis at times appeared to be in a league of her own.
Against the backdrop of a recent 2-2 draw between No. 5 Boston College and No. 6 Central Florida, Mewis, the senior All-American midfielder for the Eagles, put on an individual display worthy of a player who by most accounts nearly earned a place as the only active collegian on the United States team that won Olympic gold in London.
Soccer is sometimes subtle, sure, brilliance hidden. Mewis can do subtle just fine. But sometimes the sport is as subtle as a sledgehammer. Mewis is good with the sledgehammer, too.
In the game against the Knights, she staked her team to an early lead when she carried the ball from just inside the midfield line to the top of the 18-yard box, shrugged off a defender's last-ditch shoulder barge, drifted a few steps to the left of the goal's midline and used her favored left foot to drive a ball back across the face of goal and into the back of the net. Later, with Boston College on its heels, Mewis put a free kick on frame with enough accuracy and velocity to force the keeper to desperately parry it away. The ensuing scramble provided the tying goal. If not for a no-call in the box that could have gone either way in the closing minutes of overtime, she might have finished a win from the penalty spot.
After three-plus seasons, Mewis doesn't sneak up on anyone. Opponents devote considerable time and defensive energy to ensuring she isn't the player who beats them. Yet still she often does, as special players tend to.
"They get a lot of attention, they get numbers around them, they're a marked entity," Boston College coach Alison Foley said of players of Mewis' ilk. "I think you've seen that in Kristie, but the biggest separation in Kristie from last year to this year is the way she's managing that. Last year she would get frustrated, and this year she's accepted it. With that, she's playing with a lot more maturity and finding ways to overcome it, as opposed to being affected by it."
Mewis possesses the kind of talent that can change a program's profile. It did at Boston College, where she was the best player on the program's first College Cup team in 201. She is the star of a team with similar aspirations this season. But if she represents cause, she also embodies effect.
Conference realignment happens for reasons having little to do with a soccer field, softball diamond, volleyball court or anything that isn't football, the cash cow of college athletics. And yet the decision Boston College made under director of athletics Gene DeFilippo to leave the Big East for the ACC eight years ago inadvertently altered the map of women's soccer as much as any school's move will alter any sport. It created a national power.
Without Mewis, Boston College wouldn't be the program it is right now. But without the ACC, Mewis likely wouldn't be at Boston College.
"I think certainly for women's soccer, when Gene made the decision to go to the ACC, our program specifically had a lot of benefits," Foley said. "We saw the recruiting and the quality of our recruiting go up. Our top competitors right now, in terms of recruiting, are probably Stanford, Duke and Virginia. Without being in [the ACC], I don't know that that necessarily happens, that we're competing for those level players. And it makes us better for postseason. We see the best all throughout conference play, and I think we're directly better in NCAAs because of conference."
Prior to moving to the ACC for the 2005 season, Boston College made eight NCAA tournament appearances in 23 seasons and won five tournament games. It was a quality Big East program, posting a losing conference record just twice in 12 seasons in that league, but it was a national nonentity and never more than a distant second, at best, to the University of Connecticut as a regional power in the Northeast.
That changed when the soccer team joined a conference that is to women's soccer what the SEC is to football, a conference that didn't even need dynastic North Carolina to produce three College Cup teams last season.
Boston College has not missed the NCAA tournament in seven ACC seasons and has totaled 13 wins, in addition to two shootout wins, in those appearances, including the aforementioned trip to the College Cup and six appearances in the Sweet 16. It is unquestionably the dominant program north of the Maryland-D.C. Beltway and east of Penn State, acreage that includes some of the best recruiting territory in women's soccer.
"We all felt like once they came into the ACC that it would help elevate the talent that they would be able to bring in to Boston," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "There's a lot of very, very good players around the Boston area -- within a drive to Boston, down into New York, Connecticut, New Jersey. A lot of players that have traditionally, because it was the ACC, looked at somewhere like Virginia, Duke, Wake, Carolina, those schools. We felt like Boston College would probably be able to keep some of those players at home and their families could probably get to see them play more than if they came south.
"We were concerned with it, and Alison's done a great job there of keeping those players."
Boston College signed sisters Gina and Vicki DiMartino from Long Island after it joined the ACC; younger sister Vicki is still a key player in her senior season and the program's all-time goals leader in its ACC era. Connecticut provided former All-American goalkeeper Jillian Mastroianni and former standout and current assistant coach Kia McNeill. And Hanson, Mass., about 30 miles south of the campus, served up Mewis, the best of them all.
"She's just a combination of physical presence, strength, power, explosiveness and what looks like mental toughness to me," Church said of Mewis. "Obviously, she can strike a ball from distance; you always have to worry about that when you play Boston College. She does like to shoot, and she will shoot. I think it's her ability to do a lot of things; she can combine with other players, she can pass and move, she can run at players.
"She's a handful. She's the top of the list of the ACC when you talk about special players."
Boston College doesn't have sole claim to regional talent, even within its own extended family -- Samantha Mewis, Kristen's younger sister, chose UCLA, as did Christina DiMartino, older sister of Gina and Victoria, reminders of the Pac-12 positioning itself as a challenger to ACC supremacy. Plenty of Northeast products, like North Carolina's Crystal Dunn (New York) and Wake Forest's Rachel Nuzzolese (New York), still excel in more Southern conference climes. But from stars like Mewis to emerging players like forward Stephanie McCaffrey (Massachusetts) and defender Casey Morrison (Pennsylvania), the Eagles are able to compete on even footing on with any program.
"I think when we were in the Big East, we had a lot of players that were more role-specific," Foley said. "Now you see players that we give a bit more flexibility to and allow them to be more creative because individually they are ... they're better soccer players, and you don't want to pigeonhole those kind of players because they are who they are because of their creativity."
Foley said she never asked Mewis if the highly touted recruit would have stayed home had Boston College still been in the Big East. She also said she doubted it. Probably with good reason.
"I definitely wanted to play at an ACC school just because I think all the teams in it are great and it's the best competition, or one of the best competition leagues, in the United States," Mewis said. "I visited other schools that were in different leagues, but Boston College was just so special to me and I really wanted to go here."
With a chance to play close to home against the best competition, it wasn't a tough call.