Previewing the NCAA soccer quarterfinals

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- All teams want is an opportunity to be one of eight stories at the end of the weekend.

With the lone remaining spot in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament on the line, No. 1 Penn State and conference rival Michigan went back and forth deep into an increasingly frigid night in central Pennsylvania. Less than a month ago, the Nittany Lions and Wolverines played 110 minutes of soccer on the same field without settling anything in a 1-1 draw. At the end of 110 more minutes on this night, they were again level at 1-1.

After a series of sensational saves to get her team to a shootout in the first place, Michigan redshirt senior Haley Kopmeyer turned away Penn State's first two attempts. When her teammates converted their first two kicks, Michigan had a 2-0 lead and every bit of momentum there was to be found inside Jeffrey Field. The statistics say it's possible, but you don't expect to come back from two down in a shootout.

"I was a little nervous," Penn State All-American Christine Nairn said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't."

Penn State University

Christine Nairn leads Penn State with 15 goals. The Nittany Lions will need her firepower against Duke in the quarterfinals.

Stymied much of the night, as it had been earlier in the season, the nation's highest scoring offense needed a helping hand to earn another game. It got one from goalkeeper Erin McNulty, who matched Kopmeyer's back-to-back saves and did her one better, saving the next three shots Michigan took. Three Penn State players had to convert kicks to make it matter, with Maya Hayes slotting home the third and final one, but this win belonged to the keeper.

"She's the reason why we won this game," Nairn said. "I told her before 'All you've got to save is one, and we'll do the rest.' But she saved three, so she did all the work."

McNulty graduated from Florida State in 2010, having started for the Seminoles in the 2007 national championship game, but she used up just two seasons of eligibility on the field. Now pursuing graduate studies at Penn State, she is one win from returning to the College Cup and two wins from another shot at a championship. Three saves from elimination and another crushing postseason disappointment, she was whom the Nittany Lions needed.

"This is somebody that's come into our program and changed our lives, both on and off the field," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. "She's been such a positive influence to all of us, including myself. ... I can speak for these guys that Erin McNulty is one of the most selfless people I've ever met. She's right now focusing on trying to win a national championship and then figure out a career. And whatever she does, she's going to be successful. That's the type of person she is."

For the eight teams that remain part of the story, what was the path to the quarterfinals and what comes next?

No. 3 Duke at No. 1 Penn State

How Penn State got here: The nation's most prolific offense lived up to the billing against Boston College in the second round, piling up five goals and dazzling with skill in a wide-open, end-to-end game. At this point, every team remaining has attacking assets, but no team has demonstrably better attacking talents than the five and often six players Penn State throws forward in a 3-5-2 formation. Still, it was McNulty who ultimately saved the day and prevented another postseason disappointment for the program by coming up with three consecutive saves in the penalty shootout against Michigan.

How Duke got here: The Blue Devils didn't tempt fate by letting upstart Miami (Ohio) hang around in a second-round game, scoring twice in the opening 13 minutes and three times without answer in the first half en route to a 4-1 win. For the first time all season, they produced a win against an elite opponent away from Durham in the Sweet 16. Playing on the same field in Charlottesville, Va., on which it lost a little more than a month and a half ago, Duke beat Virginia 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals for the second season in a row. Kim DeCesare scored twice against Miami and twice against Virginia to move into a tie with Laura Weinberg for the team lead with 16 goals.

What comes next: For fans who like goals, which pretty much means everyone, this quarterfinal could be the most entertaining of the bunch. The Nittany Lions and Blue Devils entered the second round as the top two scoring teams in the nation and spent most of the weekend showing why. Along with that offense, both are defensively vulnerable, partly because of structural or personnel issues but also because they both spend so much time pushing the other direction. Penn State's back line in a 3-5-2 will be tested by Duke's front line of DeCesare, Weinberg and Mollie Pathman, with Kelly Cobb coming off the bench. It's unlikely the first goal wins this game.

No. 2 North Carolina at No. 1 BYU

How North Carolina got here: No team swung between extremes in the tournament's second weekend like North Carolina. The Tar Heels fell behind in a second-round game against Illinois but came within one goal of a tournament scoring record in a 9-2 win. That matched their output from the five preceding games combined. Eight players scored goals, and 13 players registered a point. With that fresh in their minds, the Tar Heels went out and struggled to get so much as a shot on goal in Sunday's Sweet 16 game against Baylor. Crystal Dunn's brilliant individual effort with just more than eight minutes to play salvaged a 1-1 draw through regulation and overtime, and the Tar Heels buried all four of their shots from the penalty spot in the shootout.

North Carolina called on freshman keeper Bryane Heaberlin in the shootout after senior Adelaide Gay played all 110 minutes. Baylor missed two shots wide in the shootout that didn't test Heaberlin.

How BYU got here: If North Carolina swung between peaks and valleys, BYU hung its hat on sustained and somewhat surprising drama -- mostly resolved from the penalty spot. Locked in a 0-0 draw against Auburn in the second round, BYU was awarded a penalty kick in the 90th minute that Carlee Payne Holmoe converted for the only tally in a 1-0 win that brought students onto the field in Provo, Utah, in celebration. Two days later, the Cougars again needed the penalty spot to advance, this time as a result of an extended shootout after a 0-0 draw against Marquette. In the eighth round of the shootout, Kayla Varner, who had just one goal in 15 appearances entering the game and had played just 13 minutes off the bench in the match, put home the winner that sent her team to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003. BYU is looking for its first College Cup.

What comes next: Talk about intriguing plots. The greatest program in the history of women's college soccer heads to Provo to face an opponent that has just 11 all-time NCAA tournament wins on its résumé but also has some of the biggest crowds in the sport this season. Only North Carolina's seniors have been to a College Cup, but its coach knows a little bit about the postseason. Will that institutional memory trump the travel and hostile atmosphere that awaits the Tar Heels? For North Carolina star Kealia Ohai, this match is also a homecoming. It may be a mild surprise to some, given Florida State's stalwart defense and the scarcity of goals against Stanford or UCLA, that BYU has the stingiest defense remaining in the draw. And it's not as if the Cougars manage that by packing people behind the ball.

No. 3 UCLA at No. 1 Stanford

How UCLA got here: Quietly and effectively. UCLA has yet to concede a goal in the NCAA tournament. It took the Bruins the longest to break through against Kentucky in the second round, but once that was done, they rolled to a 5-0 win. A Southern California derby against No. 2 San Diego State in the Sweet 16 fell short of expectations for drama because the Bruins didn't let any build. Pac-12 Player of the Year Zakiya Bywaters scored in the seventh minute and again in the 13th minute to put the Aztecs on the ropes at home.

How Stanford got here: A second-round game against Santa Clara proved to be more of a test than the first time the teams met this season, a 6-1 win for Stanford in August. This time it was a 2-1 decision, although Stanford's Courtney Verloo staked her team to a 2-0 lead inside of an hour before the Broncos got one back late. That hurdle cleared, Stanford cruised to a 3-0 win against unseeded Denver in the Sweet 16. In addition to scoring the third and final goal, Chioma Ubogagu assisted on Alex Doll's opening goal. In just 16 appearances since returning from the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup, Ubogagu has a team-high 11 assists.

What comes next: Stanford last lost a postseason game that didn't take place in the College Cup on Nov. 23, 2007, when Connecticut went to Palo Alto and won 2-0 in the Sweet 16. The following season was the last time that UCLA beat Stanford with a Bruins team that was absolutely loaded with individual talent. UCLA had the lead with 20 minutes to play when the teams met last month in Los Angeles, but the combination of Ubogagu and Verloo, with plenty of help from Rachel Quon in finishing the winner, proved too much. Stanford has been great all season, but Ubogagu's return and Verloo's emergence has shifted the team into an even higher gear.

Notre Dame at No. 1 Florida State

How Notre Dame got here: The lone unseeded team to reach the quarterfinals put together the most impressive second weekend. First, the Fighting Irish dispatched No. 3 Wake Forest 2-1, one year after the Demon Deacons went to the College Cup with much the same lineup. Freshmen provided both goals in the game for the Fighting Irish, one by Cari Roccaro and one by Crystal Thomas, fitting for a team coach Randy Waldrum dubbed "Baby Irish" before the season. After falling behind in each of the first two rounds, Notre Dame avoided a similar fate against No. 2 Florida in the Sweet 16 by virtue of keeping a clean sheet. Rebecca Twining scored the eventual winner in the 20th minute, while Lauren Bohaboy effectively clinched it with an insurance goal in the 71st minute.

How Florida State got here: It wasn't the closest call for a No. 1 seed, considering BYU and Penn State both needed penalty shootouts to evade elimination, but Florida State got a bit of a scare in a 3-2 overtime win against Texas Tech in the second round. That struggle out of the way, the Seminoles scored the most lopsided win of the Sweet 16 with a 4-0 result against No. 4 Texas A&M. Sparked by Tiffany McCarty, who scored the winner and another goal against Tech and added one against A&M, the offense is coming on at the right time. The Seminoles scored as many as seven goals in a two-game span just twice in the regular season.

What comes next: Yes, it's the lone game with an unseeded team, but these teams are as much a part of the landscape as turkey and stuffing at this time of year. This is the eighth year in a row Florida State has reached the quarterfinals and the eighth year in the past nine that Notre Dame has done so. Florida State's offense seemed to put a lot of pressure on its defense during the regular season to make one-goal leads hold up, but with McCarty and Dagny Brynjarsdottir on top of their games, the goals are flowing. In that respect, and the rankings aside, Notre Dame is constructed in a similar manner.

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