Penn State Joins Rutgers, Florida State And Duke In College Cup
After four games, four overtime periods, two upsets and 14 rounds of penalty kicks, the NCAA tournament quarterfinals are complete and the field is set for the College Cup in Cary, North Carolina.
It will soon be time to look ahead to a pair of familiar semifinals, ACC rivals Florida State and Duke playing for a place in the championship game opposite the winner between Big Ten foes Penn State and Rutgers, but there is time to first take a deep breath and consider how we got here.
Here are three observations from the four quarterfinals.
No. 1 Penn State 2, No. 2 West Virginia 0
Penn State put itself in right place at right time: West Virginia took leads within 17 minutes in each of the first three rounds, all at home, but it found itself in a less comfortable position when Penn State's Emily Ogle scored a long-range free kick in the 12th minute of Saturday's quarterfinal. The goal itself was partly good fortune, as the ball drifted over the keeper on a wet and breezy day, but that moment of luck was the product of minutes of patient buildup that preceded it. Similarly, while a moment of brilliance from Frannie Crouse made it 2-0 when she buried a strike shortly before halftime, it came after the Nittany Lions held the ball for such a prolonged stretch that they were able to change the point of attack multiple times. Penn State didn't dominate possession in the game, but far more of its possession had a purpose.
Fresh legs help Nittany Lions: Penn State made the College Cup in 2012 despite so many injuries on defense that coach Erica Walsh had to switch to playing with three defenders for much of the year out of necessity. This season she has an embarrassment of riches. It was freshman outside back Ellie Jean who put in the sharply struck cross that set up the second goal. That came just minutes after Jean entered the game as a replacement for United States U-20 veteran Brittany Basinger. Both players are good going forward, as Jean showed in that sequence, so it's to Penn State's benefit to keep them both fresh on a back line that still hasn't allowed a goal in the tournament as it rotates minutes between those two and Maddie Elliston alongside Elizabeth Ball and Kaleigh Riehl.
Crouse goes 90: Because she is a goal scorer, and goal scorers always want more, Crouse's thoughts might linger on a couple of chances that nearly found the back of the net more than on the one she so superbly finished. But more than any specific moments, her place on the field for 90 minutes spoke volumes about her importance to the team and maturation as an all-around player in her sophomore season. So fast and so athletic that she was often best turned loose for about 50 minutes at full throttle, she played every minute Saturday and remained a constant thorn in West Virginia's side. As with Basinger and Jean, it's all the better if there is an opportunity give her some rest, but it's also worth knowing that she can thrive without it.
No. 2 Rutgers 0, No. 1 Virginia 0 (Rutgers advances 7-6 in shootout)
Big Ten's best goalkeeper saves the day: Rutgers spent most of the afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, trying to avoid playing from behind. It did that so well, in fact, that goalkeeper Casey Murphy didn't have much to do for 110 scoreless minutes of regulation and overtime. She did plenty in the subsequent penalty shootout that sent Rutgers to its first ever College Cup and eliminated the nation's No. 1 team.
Her team already trailing 2-0 in the shootout, Murphy stepped to the penalty spot against Virginia keeper Jessie Ferrari, a substitute. Ferrari had only entered the game for the shootout and had promptly saved the first two shots she faced. Murphy converted her kick to put Rutgers on the scoreboard, then stepped back in goal and saved the next Virginia shot. The shootout continued until Murphy saved a shot in the ninth round, but the earlier sequence made the difference. Just like a keeper should.
But the defense wins the day: The slim final score was the product of as good a defensive effort as this tournament will produce. It might enter the discussion as the best the tournament has seen. No Cinderella itself, Rutgers didn't put five people in the back and bunker for its life the way Michigan did in a quarterfinal against Virginia in 2013. It was clear from the outset that most of the game would be played in the Scarlet Knights' half of the field.
Yet for as much possession as the Cavaliers had, the favorites generated precious few scoring opportunities. A Rutgers back line led by Erika Skroski, Brianne Reed and Erin Smith patiently and calmly let Virginia expend its energy in buildup that fizzled out around the 18-yard box. By overtime, it was Rutgers that looked more likely to end the game before a shootout with the host's last reserves spent.
Rare occurrence: Not since 2005, when Florida State eliminated North Carolina, had a visiting team won a quarterfinal penalty shootout. And not since 2002, when Portland eliminated Stanford, had the road team done that after holding its opponent scoreless for 110 minutes. And to reiterate, Rutgers did that against a team that scored more goals than any team in the country (second only to Mississippi Valley State in goals per game) and won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title.
No. 1 Florida State 5, Texas A&M 0
Impenetrable defense: Florida State chose not to broadcast its postseason home games, as was also the case a season ago, but opposing fans didn't miss much. Or miss anything, to be precise. Florida State reached 830 consecutive minutes without conceding a postseason goal during the first half of Friday's rout, a streak that dates back to UCLA's overtime goal to win the national championship in 2013. That stretch (now near 900) broke North Carolina's NCAA record set more than a decade ago.
No nerves for newcomers: Irish freshman Megan Connolly gave the Seminoles an early lead against Texas A&M, and Icelandic classmate Elin Jensen finished the scoring with two goals in the second half. That's no surprise. As it moved on this season without Hermann Trophy finalist and Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Florida State received 22 goals and 21 assists from the international freshman trio of Connolly, Jensen and Natalia Kuikka (American freshman Kaycie Tillman added another four goals and eight assists). Florida State needed to restock quickly and no one does that better, or accrues more air miles doing it, than head coach Mark Krikorian.
Another streak continues: As impressive as the season-spanning scoreless streak is, another streak that began before any of the current players were around. This will be Florida State's fifth consecutive College Cup and ninth overall. Only North Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA reached as many as five in a row (or in North Carolina's case, 22 in a row), and only North Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford and Santa Clara have more total appearances.
Not bad for a program that didn't exist when some of its current players were born.
No. 3 Duke 1, No. 1 Stanford 1 (Duke advances 3-2 in shootout)
Day of the shootout save: Contrary to what Friday suggests, penalty shootouts are not the means by which most teams earn College Cup appearances. Rutgers became just the fourth team since 2000 to take that route through a quarterfinal. A few hours later, Duke became the fifth. That's three in 60 quarterfinals over the past 15 years and two in three games Friday. This time, it was E.J. Proctor to the rescue. Duke's goalkeeper, who made seven saves during the game but was truly tested only sparingly, saved the first shot of the shootout and might have had the second shot covered had it not missed the frame entirely. Then, with a win on the line and her counterpart Jane Campbell at the penalty spot, as the Stanford keeper was when she clinched a quarterfinal shootout win a season earlier, Proctor made the save of the day.
Missing piece haunts Stanford: It is fitting the story to the score to suggest anything other than that Stanford was a good enough team to reach and even win the College Cup. It proved that over the season and it showed it often over 110 minutes Friday in which it had more of the ball and outshot Duke 22-8. But Michelle Xiao's tying goal in the first half, which answered Toni Payne's goal that put Duke ahead, summed up both this team's strength and weakness. Summed up because it moved Xiao, who came off the bench after filling in so well as a defender in earlier rounds, into a five-way tie for the team lead with five goals. It took at least 20 goals to lead the Cardinal in scoring between 2009-11 and double digits each of the past seven seasons. Having a great goal scorer isn't always enough against a committed defense, as Virginia learned, but Stanford had every other piece of the puzzle. It had everything except soccer's equivalent of the alchemist who turns nothing into goals.
A cry for goal line technology: Logistically and financially, it isn't going to happen in our lifetimes, even for quarterfinals, but a lot of people might have slept easier Friday night if there was a way to review whether or not a ball crossed the goal line. Both teams were left to wonder if they really needed to go to penalty kicks.
Stanford put an 83rd minute corner kick into dangerous space. While it was impossible to tell on first look at web stream (which didn't include replays) what path the ball traveled as it ricocheted off heads and bodies, Stanford players protested vehemently in the moment that the ball crossed the line before it was finally cleared. Then early in overtime, a Duke shot from distance nearly eluded Campbell, who bobbled the ball as she traversed the goal line. In both cases, especially the latter, the ball probably never crossed the line. It would be nice to know for sure.