UC Irvine has been here before, with a home game against their mightiest rival with an NCAA tournament berth, or at least an automatic berth, there for the taking.
Long Beach State knocked off the Anteaters last year, merely a hiccup en route to UCI's program-best round-of-16 appearance, and the 49ers are the opposition again Sunday in the Big West Conference tournament championship game.
The 24th-ranked Anteaters (14-3-2) will be home for the noon clash. Win or lose, they figure to make the NCAA field, and Long Beach (14-5-1) might be through regardless, too.
“You never know,” Anteaters coach Scott Juniper said on the eve of the match. “I think it looks likely [that we'll make it], and Long Beach has had a great season and put themselves in a great spot. The conference deserves two.”
The Big West usually has been underrated, especially by the NCAA, which relies far too heavily on RPI, a mechanism that doesn't really work when the sampling of interregional matches is so small. The regionalization of the NCAA bracket leads to too many first- and second-round matchups with the UCLAs, Stanfords and Santa Claras, giving the conference little opportunity to demonstrate its quality.
This year could be different. Long Beach State has a vibrant attack guided by wing-forward Nadia Link (Rowland Heights/Walnut HS) and central midfielder Shawna Gordon (Rancho Cucamonga/Los Osos HS). UC Irvine has a lock-down defense led by All-American CoCo Goodson and an offense sparked by UCLA transfer Natalia Ledezma (La Mirada/La Mirada HS), a U.S. youth national teams veteran.
“I knew this team could be as good as the team from last year, if not better,” said Juniper, whose Anteaters went 19-2-2 in 2010. “What's different and better is we got more experience and we have more confidence through the fact that we have more experience in the later stages [of the season].”
UCI has won seven in a row, six of them by shutout -- surrendering just 2½ shots on goal on average -- after a stretch of six games in which it conceded two or three goals five times. Juniper said the answer was to “go back to basics,” and Goodson, fellow center back Sarah Devine and top-class holding midfielder Judy Christopher (Ontario/Upland HS) responded with strong performances.
Ledezma has scored 12 goals with eight assists and is seeing her partnership with Lexi Kopf, who has 11 goals, reaching fruition as the NCAA tournament nears. Nice timing.
The athletic Kopf stretches defenses with her speed, and her game has benefited from the experience possessed by Ledezma, who plays underneath and finds space wide.
“They make each other better,” Juniper said, “but Natalia has got so much insight into the game. She reads it so quickly. She's a huge difference to our offense right now.”
The Anteaters' achievements last year were impressive, but they didn't win the conference tournament, and that's something they'd like to correct. Then they'll see what the NCAAs bring.
“Everyone is excited about it,” Juniper said. “[The final against Long Beach] is a massive game. There are only two championships to be won through the season. One is the Big West championship, and the other is the NCAA championship.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: UCLA superstar Sydney Leroux netted her second hat trick in as many weeks as the Bruins routed Colorado, 8-0, scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win at Utah, then netted two more -- her 15th and 16th of the season -- in a 5-2 romp over archrival USC.
Local conference players of the week:
Pacific 12 Conference (NCAA Division I)
Men: UCLA's Joe Sofia (Dove Canyon/Mission Viejo HS)
Women: UCLA's Sydney Leroux
Big West Conference (NCAA Division I)
Men: Offensive -- UC Santa Barbara's Luis Silva (Los Angeles/Salesian HS); Defensive -- Cal State Northridge's Michael Abalos (San Juan Capistrano/Santa Margarita HS)
Women: Offensive -- Long Beach State's Nadia Link (Rowland Heights/Walnut HS); Defensive -- Cal State Fullerton's Caitlin Mellano (Fullerton/Troy HS)
California Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA Division II)
Men: UC San Diego's Cory Wolfrom (Yorba Linda/Esperanza HS)
Golden State Athletic Conference (NAIA)
Men: Defensive -- Azusa Pacific's Joe Geletko (Twentynine Palms/Twentynine Palms HS)
ETC.: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (men) and Cal Lutheran (women) won the SCIAC tournaments to snare NCAA Division III tournament berths. ... The GSAC finals, for NAIA schools, will have Azusa Pacific at Point Loma Nazarena (women) on Friday and Biola visiting Concordia (men) next Saturday. ... Only one local side reached a CCAA final: Cal State L.A. faces top-seeded Chico State in the men's title game Sunday in Turlock. ... The Big West Conference men's tournament is set. UC Riverside visits UC Irvine and UC Davis plays at UC Santa Barbara in Wednesday's semifinals; the title games are next Saturday.
RANKINGS: It looks like four local schools could make it into the NCAA Division I women's tournament, including three that are ranked in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's top 25: No. 4 UCLA, No. 8 Pepperdine and No. 24 UC Irvine. Pepperdine won the West Coast Conference's berth and UCI or Long Beach State, the fourth would-be dancer, will be the Big West Conference's automatic. UCLA finished second in the Pac-12 and gets an at-large spot.
Here's a list of local teams in the NSCAA rankings:
14. UC Irvine
17. UC Santa Barbara
Nos. 1-3: New Mexico, Creighton and North Carolina
24. UC Irvine
Nos. 1-3: Stanford, Oklahoma State and Duke
Nos. 1-3: Simon Fraser (B.C.), Franklin Pierce (N.H.) and Fort Lewis (Colo.)
18. Cal State L.A.
Nos. 1-3: Bridgeport (Conn.), Abilene (Texas) Christian and Grand Valley State (Mich.)
Nos. 1-3: St. Lawrence (N.Y.), Messiah (Pa.) and Christopher Newport (Va.)
10. Cal Lutheran
Nos. 1-3: Messiah (Pa.), William Smith (N.Y.) and Trinity (Texas)
10. Azusa Pacific
Receiving votes: Vanguard, Biola and La Sierra
Nos. 1-3: Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), Baker (Kan.) and Hastings (Neb.)
4. Azusa Pacific
Receiving votes: Biola and Vanguard
Nos. 1-3: Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), Lee (Tenn.) and Mobile (Ala.)