Huskies are up to the challenge

STORRS, Conn. -- Tony Cascio explains how upset he got at age 4 when he was still too young to play on a soccer team. His older brother and sister played, and he was very impatient to compete as well.

"I remember the story my parents told me," the UConn midfielder said. "I guess you had to be 5 to play, and they said I was crying and really sad about that. But the next year I started playing, and I have just loved it ever since."

Cascio, named the Big East's offensive player of the year last week, is a junior out of Gilbert, Ariz., who came all the way to UConn -- experiencing real winter for the first time in the process -- because of its successful men's soccer program.

Along with Big East goalkeeper of the year Josh Ford, Cascio will help lead the No. 11 seed Huskies into the NCAA tournament Sunday. The top 16 seeds in the 48-team field, which was released Monday, get first-round byes. The Huskies will play the winner of the Boston College-Brown match.

The Big East has seven teams in the tournament, the most of any conference. That includes the No. 1 seed, Louisville, which won the Big East tournament title and at 16-0-3 is one of two undefeated squads in the field.

The other is Horizon League champion Butler, also 16-0-3, which is the No. 13 seed. Besides Louisville, the other three teams that are the top seeds in their respective quarters of the draw are No. 2 Maryland, the ACC's automatic qualifier; No. 3 Akron, which at 18-1-1 has the most victories in the field; and No. 4 North Carolina, which lost to the Terps in the ACC title game.

There are five teams from both the ACC and the Big Ten in the field. Defending national champion Virginia, which beat Akron in the NCAA title match last year on penalty kicks, is making its 30th consecutive appearance in the tournament.

UConn, meanwhile, is in the field for the 13th season in a row, and this is the 10-year anniversary of the Huskies' second NCAA title (they won in both 2000 and 1981). If UConn (12-2-5) is to make a run at another championship, the Huskies will need some big performances by Cascio, their leading scorer this season with 10 goals and six assists.

UConn coach Ray Reid was very straightforward about how much the Huskies will depend on Cascio in the NCAA tournament.

"Tony's season will be defined by the next three games," Reid said, meaning whether the Huskies make it as one of the four teams in the College Cup, which is Dec. 10-12 in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"We've always known Tony is a good player in the regular season. There are some questions about how Tony is in the postseason. We're going to find out what Tony's about Sunday afternoon: if he can handle it when it counts, or if he's just a guy that gets it for you when the games are in hand."

If that sounds brutally blunt, that's because Reid knows what motivates Cascio, whose brother, Jason, played at Seattle University. Tony grew up trying to beat his big brother -- "He made me tough" -- and so he responds to a challenge.

Cascio and the Huskies definitely will have a challenging time getting through a region that includes not only No. 3 Akron but also No. 6 Cal and No. 14 Indiana, which is making that program's 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

But it's a potential path that Reid thinks is doable, especially in a season in which no team seems like the clear, overwhelming favorite.

"More than ever, there's parity in college soccer this year," Reid said. "You're going to have upsets on Thursday [first round]. You're going to have some better teams out of the tournament then."

With the senior Ford being one of the best keepers in the nation -- he has 10 shutouts this season and 50 in his career -- the Huskies have an advantage of knowing that even one goal might be enough in their matches. Of course, at this level, scoring at all takes skill and precision. Cascio has those things, but consistency has been more what he feels he has to prove.

Cascio's sister, Marissa, just finished her soccer career at Mesa State in Colorado this fall, and she's coming to see Tony play at UConn for the first time in person Sunday. UConn is undefeated at home in 2010, going 8-0-2.

"This season, I've had my ups and downs," Cascio said. "The first four games, I was really frustrated. I wasn't creating much and I was really down on myself. Then in the South Carolina tournament [in September], I got my first goal, and things have been better since then.

"With a keeper like Josh and the defense we have, it gives us confidence to go at players. It gives us a chance to attack more and create stuff."

Ford has the most victories of any keeper in program history, with 54. He reached that mark in the first round of the Big East tournament. That same game was Reid's 200th win at UConn.

The Huskies then fell in a shootout to Cincinnati in the Big East quarterfinals, but Reid wasn't too disappointed by that because his team did get to rest a bit coming into the NCAA tournament. Now it's time to gear up again.

"If we just take care of our part, good things will happen," Reid said. "I think it's a good group of guys. The problem we've had is that we were so good at times, that when it gets tough, they're not used to it. But we're very good defensively, very good in goal, and our four attacking guys are as good as anybody in the country. I like our team. I like our chances."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.