Power rankings: UCLA on the rise
DURHAM, N.C. -- Sometimes the long road to the College Cup is not entirely metaphorical.
Like when you're packing for a two-week cross-country trek and trying to wedge in your cleats without incurring airline penalties.
"A lot of us were really worried that our bags were going to be over 50 pounds," UCLA junior midfielder Sarah Killion said. "We were a little worried we were going to get in trouble."
The season will surely bring more significant challenges for the Bruins, but this is a start.
UCLA just completed a 12-day road trip that included stops in two cities and four games against ranked teams. The Bruins headed back to Los Angeles with a 3-0-1 record on the trip, beating Duke and Notre Dame on their respective home fields and Marquette on a neutral field. The lone setback was a loss against North Carolina.
The results were important for a team that hopes to make a return trip to Cary, N.C., for the College Cup, but they were only part of the equation. The Bruins returned a lot of people this season. Nine players who started in last season's NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Stanford remain on the roster, as do 11 of 14 players who saw the field in that game. They know each other well, but they're still getting to know Amanda Cromwell. And the new coach is still getting to know them.
The first thing Killion did when she learned the name of her new coach this spring, fittingly in this day and age, was Google her. That's starting anew.
Unlike 2011, when assistant coach B.J. Snow was elevated to the top position after longtime coach Jill Ellis left for U.S. Soccer, UCLA went out of the family for a replacement when Snow left this past offseason to become the coach of the Under-17 national team. Cromwell built UCF back into a program of consequence during her long tenure there, but from that job to her own college playing career at Virginia, most of her soccer roots were on the East Coast.
At UCF, Cromwell did more with less. At UCLA, the challenge is to do more with more. If she can get a roster with as much refined skill and natural talent as the one at UCLA to play with the same kind of resolve showed by UCF teams like the one that eliminated North Carolina from the NCAA tournament two years ago, the sky is the limit.
"I feel like, myself as a player and a coach, if you're the underdog, you have a little bit of that extra grit and grind inside of you that you're willing to push," Cromwell said. "If you think someone doesn't believe you can do it, I think that's extra motivation that you can. We talked about that, kind of the mindset of a champion and the heart of an underdog.
"I think they've been doing that. They've been grinding more and realizing sometimes it's about the battle. It's not always going to be the beautiful game."
That doesn't mean reinventing the wheel, just putting on new tires.
"I think it's definitely very similar to how we've played," Killion said. "We've always kind of tried to play the beautiful game, pretty soccer, nice-looking soccer, but with the intention of still getting into tackle, playing hard, scoring lots of goals."
To buy what Cromwell is selling, they need to know her. They need to trust her. Beating Duke, Marquette and Notre Dame will help. Losing to North Carolina will, as well. But so, too, will a cookout at the hotel in Durham, a rock climbing expedition and a visit to the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro, N.C.
Now on to this week's power rankings.
1. North Carolina (6-0-0, last week's ranking: 1)
It was a great week for Crystal Dunn. It wasn't too shabby for the Tar Heels, either. The margin in a 1-0 win against UCLA was not indicative of how much North Carolina controlled the action. A 4-2 win against West Virginia, second-half letdown notwithstanding, was equally comprehensive. Freshmen Joanna Boyles, Cameron Castleberry and Amber Munerlyn look ready for ACC play, while fellow highly touted newcomer Emily Bruder made her season debut after a preseason injury. One note of concern could be Alexa Newfield. The Georgia transfer had two assists against West Virginia and is a perfect fit for the lineup, but injury concerns limited her to 19 minutes in the game.
2. Virginia (6-0-0, last week's ranking: 3)
Two more wins and a day off from practice to tailgate at RFK Stadium and watch one of their teammates score for the national team. It was a good week for the Virginia Cavaliers. Check that -- it was another good week. The team ahead of it has lived up to the No. 1 ranking, but in truth, no team has been as impressive as Virginia this season. After a 6-0 win against Rutgers and a 3-0 win against Seton Hall, the Cavaliers hold a 25-3 scoring edge in six games. Morgan Brian, who earned the rest of the team its field trip when she was called up to the national team for its game against Mexico, has five goals and five assists in six games -- not counting, of course, her goal against Mexico.
3. UCLA (5-1-0, last week's ranking: 2)
Home awaits with one game this week. Friday's visit from San Diego State isn't as high profile a game as it was when the teams met in last season's NCAA tournament. At 1-2-2, the Aztecs have already matched last season's total losses. Bruins goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland? She's really, really good.
4. Stanford (4-0-1, last week's ranking: 4)
That was more like it. After totaling four goals and four overtime periods in its first three appearances this season, Stanford rolled through Loyola Marymount (4-0) and a ranked Maryland team (3-0) in two home games. A year after Courtney Verloo's 10 goals led the Cardinal for the season, transfer Taylor Uhl has four in her first five games (all the more notable given that the weekend wins came without Chioma Ubogagu on the field). The Cardinal will play just one game in two of the next three weekends, beginning this week with a Sunday visit from Iowa State.
5. Wake Forest (5-0-0, last week's ranking: 6)
It isn't easy to beat Portland at Merlo Field. It isn't easy to come back from a 2-0 halftime deficit in any game. Doing both at the same time offers a monumental degree of difficulty. Wake Forest rallied from two goals down for the first time since 1996 and beat Portland 3-2 at Merlo on second-half goals from Riley Ridgik, Caroline Wootten and Ally Berry. It won't be easy with Florida State and Duke among those coming to town, but Wake Forest needs a strong start with three home games to open ACC play. After that, it plays six of its next seven games on the road.
6. Florida State (5-0-1, last week's ranking: 5)
One of the big questions for Florida State this season was where the goals would come from without Tiffany McCarty. Then the Seminoles went out and scored four against Auburn and three on the road at Florida. But scarcity showed itself this past weekend in a 1-1 draw against Oklahoma State and a 1-0 win against Oklahoma. That makes three games in a row with just a single goal for Mark Krikorian's team. It's not the momentum desired with a road trip to Wake Forest and Duke ahead this weekend and North Carolina visiting the week after.
7. Notre Dame (4-1-0, last week's ranking: 7)
Now the fun begins. Notre Dame wrapped up its nonconference schedule with a light weekend and made quick work of Detroit behind two goals and an assist from freshman Morgan Andrews. That means it's time to begin ACC life with a trip to NC State on Thursday (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) and a showdown at North Carolina on Sunday (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET). The transitive property is fool's gold in sports, but given how much UCLA dominated the ball in its win against Notre Dame, and how much North Carolina in turn dominated the ball against UCLA, intrigue awaits.
8. Baylor (5-0-1, last week's ranking: NR)
As impressive as Baylor's run was a season ago, reaching the Sweet 16 and generally outplaying North Carolina in that round before exiting on penalty kicks, what's going on now is equally so. With a neutral-field win against Missouri and a draw at Texas A&M, the first point against its neighbor in the past 12 meetings, Baylor extended its unbeaten streak to 27 games. To graduate cornerstones like Carlie Davis, Hanna Gilmore, Dana Larsen and Lisa Silwinski and come back with this kind of start speaks volumes about co-coaches Marci and Paul Jobson.
9. BYU (4-0-0, last week's ranking: NR)
BYU is another of last season's success stories that these rankings may have counted out before its time. The Cougars lost a lot from the team that earned a No. 1 seed in last season's NCAA tournament and came inches from the College Cup, but they remain undefeated against a decent schedule this season. The past weekend's win against Utah came on an 88th-minute penalty (much like a second-round escape against Auburn last postseason), but that rivalry game was the only one the Cougars lost in the regular season a year ago. Freshman Ashley Hatch and redshirt senior Colette Jepson Smith have thus far picked up the scoring slack left by last season's seniors.
10. West Virginia (3-1-2, last week's ranking: 9)
North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said West Virginia freshman Kadeisha Buchanan "might be the best center back in college." So yes, the Mountaineers made an impression at the Nike Classic. It was unfortunate for Buchanan that her handball penalty set up the goal Duke needed to salvage a draw Friday, but one point isn't a bad return from facing the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in Durham. The Mountaineers lost midfielder Ali Connelly to an undisclosed knee injury over the weekend, but coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said she was optimistic that senior Caroline Szwed would return with the next week or two. Voted the team's MVP in 2011, Szwed missed all of 2012 with a knee injury.
Next five: Duke, Penn State, Florida, Michigan, Portland
Ten games to watch this week (rankings from NSCAA Top 25)
• No. 8 Notre Dame at No. 1 North Carolina
• No. 4 Florida State at No. 7 Wake Forest
• No. 4 Florida State at No. 15 Duke
• Miami at No. 7 Wake Forest
• Minnesota at No. 9 Florida
• Cal Poly at No. 10 Baylor
• No. 16 Denver at Colorado
• Missouri at No. 17 Portland
• Kentucky at No. 19 West Virginia
• Pepperdine at No. 23 USC