NCAA women's soccer bracket features a star's last shot, a lopsided rivalry, a starving SEC

Courtesy Stanford

Andi Sullivan and No. 1 seed Stanford are hoping to be in the running on Dec. 3 when the national championship game will be played.

Not so very many weeks after the National Women's Soccer League settled its season at Orlando City Stadium, NCAA soccer turns its attention to the same venue. Now the Women's College Cup returns to the city for the first time since the event's first two years in 1982 and 1983.

That Missouri-St. Louis, now a Division II school, was a semifinalist in that first tournament may suggest times have changed. That North Carolina, the first champion, is again a No. 1 seed shows that we shouldn't be too hasty in our judgment. But beginning with 32 first-round games this weekend and continuing through the final weekend of games in December, some school will do what only 11 thus far have done and win a national championship.

Here are three of the most important questions that need answering first.

Will Andi Sullivan leave with a title?

Morgan Brian fell one game short in her final season at Virginia. The same fate befell Kadeisha Buchanan a season ago with West Virginia. Go back more years and the story was identical for Stanford's Christen Press. Rather than storybook endings, the NCAA tournament has over the past decade provided cruel farewells to players who otherwise defined college soccer.

Does a similar fate await Stanford senior and United States international Andi Sullivan in her final run through the NCAA tournament? At this point, she would welcome a chance to find out.

Sullivan's freshman season ended in a semifinal loss. No big deal in the scheme of things. Stanford was making its sixth appearance in seven years in the College Cup, and that familiarity showed few signs of waning. But her sophomore season ended with a penalty shootout loss against Duke in a quarterfinal, a game in which the Cardinal piled up a 22-8 edge in shots.

Her junior season ended with a second-round overtime loss against rival Santa Clara. Or more accurately, that Santa Clara goal ended Stanford's season. Sullivan's season ended minutes earlier when she tore her ACL. And suddenly a stay at Stanford that seemed destined to add to the program's lone national championship is one loss from ending empty-handed.

This is as complete a team as the Cardinal have put around Sullivan, who navigated injury rehab and national team duty to appear in 17 games this fall. Sparked by sensational freshman Catalina Macario, who enters the tournament as the only major conference player with double-digit goals and assists, Stanford leads the nation with 70 goals. That is also 64 more goals than the Cardinal have allowed, the fourth-stingiest defensive mark in the nation.

Sullivan is unlikely to be on hand for the opening-round game against Utah Valley after she was called up by the United States (Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe said Monday he wasn't sure yet of her status), but that absence should be manageable. With No. 2 West Virginia and recent champions No. 3 Penn State and No. 4 Florida State also in the Cardinal's quarter of the bracket, it's the later rounds that offer an uncomfortable amount of potential heartbreak.

Will there be a third installment of Duke vs. North Carolina?

To get some sense of the weight of history Duke is fighting against in women's college soccer, consider that its first ever trip to the College Cup ended with a 9-1 loss to North Carolina in the 1992 national championship game, still the most lopsided final in tournament history.

Courtesy Shane Lardinois

Imani Dorsey and Duke have defending champion USC in their quarter of the bracket.

Even when it is better than everyone else, Duke can't seem to be better than its neighbor.

Which brings us to the current season and players who weren't yet born when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils met for the title a quarter of a century ago. No. 1 Duke enters this year's tournament with a 19-0-0 record against every school in the country not located in Chapel Hill. It enters with two losses in as many tries against the similarly top-seeded Tar Heels, a 2-1 overtime setback in the season opener and a 1-0 loss in this past weekend's ACC tournament final.

And if seedings hold, guess which team would stand in Duke's way in a national semifinal?

Granted, there is a lot of soccer to play before worrying about a third installment of the rivalry. North Carolina is a No. 1 seed but will continue playing in its temporary home in nearby Cary, North Carolina, while its own stadium is renovated. Beset by injuries in recent weeks that have reduced the team's trademark depth around standouts like freshman Alessia Russo and fifth-year senior Joanna Boyles, the Tar Heels also drew the short straw among the No. 1 seeds by finding No. 2 UCLA among those in its way.

Duke, meanwhile, sits in the same part of the bracket as defending national champion No. 3 USC and red-hot SEC tournament champion No. 2 Texas A&M. Even for a team that swept ACC awards for offensive player, defensive player and midfielder of the year in the persons of Imani Dorsey, Schuyler DeBree and Rebecca Quinn, respectively, that's a difficult path (Quinn will also miss the opening round while playing for Canada).

Will this be the year the SEC sticks around?

South Carolina's stunning loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament may have helped secure the Razorbacks a place in the draw, but it didn't cost the Gamecocks a No. 1 seed. That is either a testament to the depth in the SEC or the selection committee's belief that such depth exists.

The story is familiar because no one changes it. With the exception of Texas A&M in 2014, the Aggies one of college soccer's longstanding success stories but one built in the Big 12, the SEC hasn't placed a team in the College Cup since Florida in 2001. That was three years after the Gators won the only national championship in the conference's soccer history. There is a growth curve. The league is getting more teams through to the Sweet 16. But not the College Cup.

With a record nine teams in the field this season, the league needs a strong showing.

With three teams seeded, No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 Florida, it also needs a semifinalist. No excuses.

That makes South Carolina's quarter of the bracket intriguing precisely because it lacks any of the traditional heavyweights, aside from unseeded Santa Clara. Barring the improbable, one of the SEC flagships will finally get to the College Cup (or back there, in Florida's case), or No. 2 UCF or No. 4 Ohio State will live up to top-10 rankings and keep the SEC silent another year. In UCF's case, that would mean earning a chance to play in its home city in the College Cup.

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