Texas sets sights on college soccer's final weekend

STORRS, Conn. -- For winning the Big 12 conference tournament and finishing second in the league during the regular season, Texas received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA women's soccer tournament and a trip to Storrs, Conn. (distance from Austin: 1,895 miles) for a first-round game against Long Island.

It's a little like winning a Nobel Prize and, oh, by the way, would you mind melting down the metal and making your own medal?

"There was an excitement about being recognized for having a quality season and [being] a good team," Texas coach Chris Petrucelli said. "Certainly, we'd rather be at home, and if we had our choice, we'd be in Austin right now. But you play where they tell you to play. Our guys weren't destroyed by it, they weren't totally put off by it. They have a preference, but when you get to this thing, the NCAA committee tells you where to go and you play the games."

Such is life for the Big 12, a conference still seeking its first trip to the College Cup.

Every other major conference -- ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East -- has made at least one appearance in the final quartet in the last 10 years. The West Coast Conference might as well book its hotel rooms in August, having sent 13 teams to the College Cup since 1996. Even the Ivy League has sent a team to the final weekend of the season. But there sits the Big 12, still on the outside looking in, gazing enviously at one of the only trophies to which it hasn't staked some sort of claim.

Much of the conference's lack of success in reaching the game's greatest stage has to do with the inability of its dynasties to expand their power. Women's college soccer has been all about juggernaut programs in the past. The Pac-10, SEC and Big Ten may have nine total semifinal appearances in the last 10 years, but all of those were earned by one team from each conference (UCLA, Florida and Penn State, respectively).

Since emerging from the remnants of the Big 8 and Southwestern Conference more than a decade ago, the Big 12 has had its own dynasties in Nebraska and Texas A&M. But as good as they've been, they've been more like the Danish monarchy (with an unbroken line of more than 50 kings and queens bent on anything but world conquest) than the British Empire.

"We haven't had anybody good enough to be there," Petrucelli said. "It's not like we were unlucky, we just haven't had teams that were good enough. So in order for us to take that next step, we need to start not only getting there, but we need to start winning when we get there."

And if there is anyone in the Big 12 qualified to offer that assessment, it's Petrucelli. Before arriving in Austin in 1999, he guided Notre Dame to a national championship in 1995.

The year after Petrucelli's Irish won the title, in the first year of women's soccer in the Big 12, Nebraska and Texas A&M produced all 11 players on the all-conference first team. A year later, they nearly duplicated that feat by putting 10 on the first team. The two schools won four of the first five regular season titles and swept the first seven conference tournaments.

But when it came to the national stage, the Cornhuskers and Aggies fell short in the postseason. Nebraska, which has long had a pipeline of elite Canadian talent filling its roster, advanced to the quarterfinals in 1999, and Texas A&M reached the quarterfinals in 2002, but neither could win the game that would have sent them to the College Cup.

Enter the Longhorns, representatives of a changing landscape in women's college soccer, where more and more programs find themselves empowered to dream of championships.

This season's success is really the culmination of a period of growth for both the program and the league. Five different schools have captured Big 12 titles in the last seven years, with Texas, Colorado and Kansas joining the traditional powers. Texas A&M earned a No. 2 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, while Colorado and Oklahoma State both earned No. 4 seeds (Oklahoma State also hits the road despite a higher seeding, traveling to Clemson for a first-round game against UNC-Greensboro).

But the Longhorns may represent the conference's best shot at a trip to Cary, N.C., for this year's College Cup, assuming they survive this weekend's detour in New England.

When Petrucelli took over in 1999, he found himself at the helm of a program with a 40-50-7 all-time record and nothing more to show for three seasons in the Big 12 than a fourth-place finish in 1997. And although the new coach won his first three games, success wasn't an instant process.

The Longhorns scored just 19 goals in 19 games during Petrucelli's first season, finishing 8-9-2. But a year later, with new recruits in the fold, they scored 49 goals in 19 games and finished third in conference play. As evidenced by a 9-2 loss against North Carolina to open that season, it was still a work in progress, but Petrucelli definitely had his program on the fast track, or at least cruising steadily in the car-pool lane.

One year later, the Longhorns opened the season with a more manageable 1-0 loss against North Carolina and went on to claim the school's first Big 12 regular season title. The ensuing NCAA Tournament run lasted just one game, but the Longhorns haven't missed the postseason since. In 2004, they beat reached the Sweet 16 with wins against North Texas and West Virginia before eventually bowing out against Portland.

For Petrucelli, competing on the field against first conference powers and now national powers has been partly a result of competing better off the field.

"The first thing we had to do was to start to have an impact recruiting in the state of Texas," Petrucelli said. "And I think we've done that."

Junior Kelsey Carpenter and sophomore Kasey Moore are the products of Petrucelli's success, top prospects who signed on to join an up-and-coming program. Carpenter, a Texas native, was ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the country as a senior and chose to stay home. Moore, who played for the Under-20 national team this fall, came to Texas from the recruiting hotbed of California.

Moore's older sister Kristen played for Clive Charles and Garrett Smith at Portland, one of the nation's premier programs. Kasey initially thought she wanted to attend a small school with a top program like Portland, but after visiting Austin, she was sold on Texas and its coach.

"She was like, 'You can't say you want a small school unless you've looked at a big school,' because I wasn't even considering them," Moore said of her sister's advice. "And then my sister won the national championship at Texas, because they were hosting it. And my sister played for Chris on the U-21's and like him a lot. He's very similar to my club coach, Abner Rogers. I just went on the visit and loved it, fell in love with it and knew it was the place for me."

Named to the all-conference first team as a freshman (she was also named to the national All-Freshman team by Soccer America), Moore is a leader on defense who combines the intangibles necessary for organizing that unit with physical gifts that include a blistering shot. Despite playing in the back, she ranks second on the team with 58 shots.

"I somehow get up and I'm lucky enough that I can hit a shot from 30 yards out," Moore said. "So a lot of times, the shots that I take aren't necessarily the best shots, but I'm just trying to get something where the goalkeeper will cough it up and give someone else a chance."

In practice on Thursday, Moore's shot didn't always find the back of the net, but the resounding thuds they produced when bounding off the light posts, crossbar or the hockey rink that sits several yards behind the goal were impressive. And when it counted, with victory on the line in a shooting drill that allowed the winners to take free shots at the losers, she drilled a hard ball into the top right corner.

Carpenter keys the attack up front for a team that has outscored opponents 46-17 entering the NCAA Tournament. She leads the team with 14 goals, eight clear of Carrie Schmit in second place. Her six goals in 2005 were enough to tie for the lead on a team that struggled to score goals, but her emergence as one of the nation's more prolific scorers this season has given the offense a new dimension.

"It was a goal at the beginning of the year," Carpenter said of increasing her offensive output. "I struggled last year getting goals, and when we set goals at the beginning of the season, that was one of them, to have more goals than [my freshman and sophomore year], so it was just to beat that record personally. But it wasn't like I wanted to be the leading scorer this year. That wasn't my goal going into this. I wanted to contribute to my team in any way I could, and luckily it's been putting the ball in the back of the net."

Still, for all the individual talent of Moore, Carpenter and others -- Schmit and defender Stephanie Logterman were named to the all-conference first team and goalie Dianna Pfenninger has seven shutouts and a 0.82 goals-against average -- this is a team with something to prove.

The Longhorns beat three NCAA Tournament teams in nonconference play -- Penn State, Illinois and Cal State Fullerton -- but they have never beaten a team that has been to the College Cup. They'll likely face one of those teams in Connecticut in the second round on the Huskies' home turf. Although Connecticut has been up and down this season, they did lead North Carolina 2-0 at the half, ranking as the only team to score twice on the Tar Heels all season. If the Horns escape that matchup, Portland looms as a potential obstacle in the third round, and either UCLA or Florida could bring College Cup pedigree to a potential quarterfinal.

Do they feel like this is a chance to make a statement? You bet.

"Yeah, definitely," Moore said enthusiastically about a sense that the Longhorns have something to prove. "People are like, 'Who is Texas? Why are they ranked No. 1? They've never been ranked high before.'

"Our goal this year is to set records and make it as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament. We've already set the record for most regular-season wins, most shutouts wins, won the Big 12 tournament when its never been won before. So we definitely want to go up there and prove to them this is a team Texas has never had before. We're going to make good things happen. I think we definitely have something to prove."

The Longhorns' focus is squarely on taking care of their own business against first-round opponent Long Island, but for the rest of the country, their postseason performance may well serve as a measure of where their conference is and how much respect it deserves.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.