With first win, Miami looking for more
One of the most difficult things a team can produce is history.
Teams can play hard and play smart, but it's rare to accomplish something for the first time.
Many thought the Hurricanes' season was over when they weren't one of eight teams to qualify for the Atlantic Coast Conference's postseason tournament. It appeared Miami, under first-year coach Tom Anagnost, would have to be content with an 8-7-2 record.
But the Canes were given a second chance when they became one of nine ACC teams to make the NCAA tournament, thanks to crucial late-season wins over top-20 schools Boston College and Maryland. And Miami took advantage of that opportunity on Friday with a 3-2 double-overtime victory over Alabama for its first postseason win in soccer.
"There's no question that was the biggest moment in the history of this program," Anagnost said. "That match was like a microcosm of the year for us. When we get ourselves in tough situations, we always seem to figure out a way to win."
Miami is 4-0-1 when games have gone to overtime this season. Against Alabama, UM trailed 2-1 with less than 20 minutes left and was playing into a stiff breeze. But Kate Howarth headed a cross from Tara Schwitter into the back of the net to tie it in the 77th minute. Ashley Flinn scored the game winner 90 seconds into the second overtime. The Canes (9-7-2) now travel across the country to face Long Beach State, which upset No. 3 Pepperdine 1-0.
This was the fourth time Miami has made it to the NCAA tournament, also qualifying in 2001, 2007 and 2008, but the first occasion it survived to the second round in the 13-year history of the program. So how does Miami avoid relaxing after already exceeding expectations?
"We all know we really haven't done anything yet," said Howarth, the team's leading scorer with 11 goals, who assisted on the winning score against Alabama. "What we have accomplished so far, we expected to have done."
Last season, Howarth sustained a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle in a 2-0 loss to Florida State that sidelined her for 11 months and required three surgeries in an eight-month stretch. While some wondered if she would return, she was fourth this year in the ACC in scoring and made the All-ACC second team.
"That was a very difficult time for me, especially when I had to keep starting over with another surgery," said Howarth, who played for Anagnost as a freshman and sophomore at Powers Catholic High School in Flint, Mich. "It was a day-in, day-out kind of situation. I'm proud of myself for getting through it. I wanted more for me and for this team."
Said Anagnost: "Kate brings it every day she steps on the field. She is a very special person. There aren't many people who could have recovered emotionally or physically from what she went through."
Under Anagnost, who coached at Central Michigan the past three seasons, the Canes soared to a 7-1 start this season. But they lost four of their next five matches and their season was in peril when they hosted ACC powers Boston College and Maryland in mid-October.
Miami upset Boston College 3-2 and then beat Maryland 2-1 to turn its season around.
"That was a huge weekend for us," Howarth said. "We kind of looked at each other and said if we play our game, we can play with anyone."
Opponents have outshot Miami 249-187 this season, but senior goalie Vikki Alonzo, who has the school record with 25 shutouts, has a .726 save percentage. After Howarth, Schwitter has five goals and Flinn four.
Anagnost said he knows little about Long Beach State other than it has a 16-5-1 record. The 49ers beat Pepperdine 1-0 in overtime for their first NCAA postseason victory as well, snapping Pepperdine's 21-match home winning streak. The 49ers have a top goalie in senior Kaitlyn Gustaves, who has 10 shutouts this year and is coming off a 12-save performance, her career best.
But Anagnost knows his team well, and he sees no reason why it can't make more history this week.
"This is going to be our greatest challenge of the year because obviously they are a great team," he said. "We have to be focused and we have to be mature. We know we are going to have to play our best to win."