Texas A&M Finally Reaches College Cup
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- This was the win of a lifetime. Several dozen lifetimes, actually.
So if it wasn't as easy as it appeared it might be, well, Texas A&M won't complain. It waited a long time for this.
The longest-suffering team in women's college soccer, No. 1 seed Texas A&M defeated second-seeded Penn State 2-1 in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal on Saturday night at Ellis Field.
The Aggies -- who had accumulated 30 wins in the NCAA tournament without ever reaching the College Cup, almost twice as many victories as any other team in a similar predicament -- will play Virginia in a semifinal on Friday in Boca Raton, Florida.
"When we came in, our senior class, that was what we wanted to do," Aggies All-American midfielder Shea Groom, one of eight seniors who started, said of the College Cup. "That's what we've been building for the last four years is to make history and leave a legacy here and bring in top-caliber recruits to this program. It kind of just all came together tonight. ... Nothing beats winning on your home field in front of a home crowd like that, the best you can find in college soccer.
"It's just a really exciting feeling to start writing history for this program."
That history is quite literally the story of their lives.
With a crowd of 3,161 in attendance, far and away the best at any of the four quarterfinal sites, Texas A&M looked for a few brief moments like it might turn the night into an extended party when it scored the game's opening goal in the fifth minute. Using her 6-foot frame to keep a defender at bay, Annie Kunz received a throw-in with her back to goal near one corner of the 18-yard box. She turned, strode toward the end line and sent the ball back across the face of goal that teammate Allie Bailey got a foot to and directed into the net while wrestling for position.
That it was senior to senior for the opening goal was only appropriate.
Kunz was born Feb. 16, 1993. Not too many months earlier, Texas A&M hired G. Guerrieri to start a soccer program. North Carolina already had 10 NCAA championships by that point. Santa Clara had already been to four consecutive tournaments, Connecticut 11 in a row. But deep in the heart of Texas, other than a stray SMU appearance, the women's game barely had a foothold at the Division I level. Bailey was born on Sept. 23, 1993. A little more than a week later, Texas A&M played its first-ever home game and beat Oral Roberts 11-0.
As Guerrieri is fond of saying, it was a good year.
It was the year in which everything that led to Saturday night was born.
Early in the first half, the crowd still settling in after Bailey's goal, an announcement came over the public address system encouraging fans to "get to know your neighbor real well" and squeeze together in the general admission bleacher seats to better accommodate the crowd still filing through the gates. The size of the crowd was impressive given that college towns across the country are often ghost towns on Thanksgiving weekend, but also nothing new. Texas A&M and Portland annually battle for attendance bragging rights. Give people in Texas a team that wins and they will embrace it. And Texas A&M, which made its first NCAA tournament in 1995 and hasn't missed since, wins a lot.
"One thing that A&M has is very passionate fans and very passionate alumni who have been very supportive of the program," Guerrieri said before the game. "But the one thing we don't have is we don't have an interstate highway running by our campus. We had to really work hard to find ways to get kids to come to campus, to get talented players to come and see the magic that this place really has, and that continues to be a little bit of a challenge for us."
Saturday was the first time in five quarterfinal appearances Texas A&M played at home, the deserved reward for sweeping both the SEC regular-season and conference tournament championships. But another sort of home-field advantage. By the middle part of the last decade, Guerrieri's program was so well supported and such a mainstay on the national scene that its home field was deemed worthy of hosting the College Cup, first in 2005 and then again in 2007 and 2009. It was during the last of those tournaments that a kid from San Diego came to the middle of Texas for the club soccer tournament that is usually held in the same city as the College Cup.
The interstate might not run through College Station, Texas, but the world of women's soccer did in those years.
"I watched the Final Four here in College Station, came on another visit and fell in love with everything about the school -- the coaches, the soccer program, the athletics in general," Bailey said. "I couldn't have had a better experience here."
It was the same story for Groom, a co-captain who vividly recalled Texas A&M assistant coach Lori Stephenson waiting out a rare snow delay during the same tournament to watch Groom play. The Missouri native was sold. If not then and there, soon thereafter.
After Penn State's Salina Williford took every bit of space the overly generous Texas A&M defense afforded her and blasted a shot from 16 yards into the top corner of the goal to level the score in the 53rd minute, it was Groom who somewhat inadvertently set up Bailey for the game-winning goal. Thinking better of a shooting opportunity through a forest of bodies in the 18-yard box, Groom chipped a ball high into the air and into trouble for the Nittany Lions. The ball bounced and then found the back of the net when Bailey slid in and deflected it off a defender's leg.
"Even though we gave up a lead, again, on a great goal, I was proud of the way that our players fought back," Guerrieri said. "They continued to play, continued to attack. The goal, you could almost tie that into the whole story of the match, in that it was grit and second effort and third effort that was able to help us get through."
It was left to yet one more Texas A&M senior, with a little help from a junior teammate, to save the day, to borrow a pun goalkeeper Jordan Day has surely heard too often in life. Day was perhaps fortunate not to get called for a penalty that could have led to a red card on a Penn State breakaway in the first half, although with no foul called she also has to get credit for heeding her coach's advice before the game for such a situation and staying upright for as long as possible to force the attacking player to make a decision. Whether or not fortune smiled on her then, she did her part in the second half with big save after big save. Even then, she needed the helping foot of junior Karlie Mueller, who cleared a goal-bound shot off the line with 16 minutes remaining after a Day save at the opposite post.
"I don't think I've ever had the privilege to play with someone as good as her," Groom said of Day, a four-year starter who missed significant time this season after suffering a knee injury in the opening game. "Those saves tonight, on one hand, you can say that's crazy and out of this world, but it's not for her. She makes those saves every day in practice. But I think the thing I love about her most is she had a really tough injury at the beginning of this year and she fought and she was there for [fellow senior goalkeeper Renee McDermott] the whole time."
But for those days or Bailey's effort to get a foot on either of the goals she scored in traffic, the game might have gone the other way. Penn State wasn't the better team, but it had more shots and arguably more quality chances.
"It's inches," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. "You look at this game, you look at the opportunities, and that's exactly what it was. It was a matter of inches. And probably the thing we say the most with our team is it's all in the details. That's probably the quote that they hear us say the most, is to focus on the details. And I thought tonight they did. I was really proud of the effort they put forth, the focus, the concentration."
It isn't right to judge a season a success or failure based on whether a team reaches the final weekend.
No program in America learned that quite so painfully as Texas A&M over the past two decades.
The Aggies and their fans deserved this one.
In some ways, even though it's the other football that owns the state's heart and fills the massive stadium a couple of blocks from Ellis Field, soccer and Texas A&M seem like cultures that were meant to meet and live happily ever after, the 12th-man tradition and call-and-response yell culture not at all distant relatives of the crowd at a West Ham United or Bayern Munich game.
"Obviously they've built a product -- they put a product out that the fans want to come and support and they love to support," Walsh said while giving a nod to the community relations involved. "It's great to see that, for all of us, for the women's game. That's what we said to the team before the game is 'This is all for women's soccer here. Whether it's for them or for us, it doesn't matter; it's for women's soccer. That feels great in our sport."
One of Texas A&M's first All-Americans, Diana Rowe, was a hometown product from Bryan, Texas, the next town over from College Station. But she had to play for the boys team at the local high school. There wasn't a girls team at the time.
There were a lot of girls in the crowd Saturday night, and you can bet they have teams to play on now.
"I really feel a lot of pride in the role our girls have had in inspiring not just young girls here in central Texas but young girls throughout the state and around the country," Guerrieri said.
Texas A&M is no longer the best program never to reach the College Cup.
Now the Aggies get a chance to simply be the best team.