2015 NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight

2015 ncaa elite eight

2015 college cup logoIt’s that time of the year again. Our Game Magazine‘s college editors Rachael Caldwell, JJ Duke, and Ruth Moore preview the first-round action of the 2015 NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament. Joining in on the fun is Glenn Crooks, former women’s soccer head coach at Rutgers. They review the previous rounds and preview the quarterfinals. NCAA Tournament time, nothing like it!

Bracket Quadrant #1

Quarterfinal Match

Texas A&M vs. #1 Florida State on Friday, November 27 at 2pm ET in Tallahassee, Florida

Thoughts On the Second and Third Rounds

Well, there’s a difference between a good team and a great team, and that certainly became clear over the past two rounds. I do want to toot my own horn, as the upsets by Texas A&M and Ole Miss were certainly possibilities I pointed out here last week. It’s tough to see North Carolina bow out in the second round for the first time in Florida State logoschool history, especially considering the roles injuries played in that early exit. As for Clemson, the Tigers flew a bit too close to the sun. Leaving it until perhaps the last possible moment in regular time to score an equalizer, and then leaving their own regional via penalty kicks. As for the other two seeded squads, Florida State had no issues dispatching South Alabama once again, while Auburn had a dramatic win against Texas Tech to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. However, it wasn’t a long stay for the Tigers, who were easily defeated by Florida State.

The SEC matchup in the third round was really the only game in the Sweet 16 to provide any drama, and I’ve got Texas A&M logoto give a shoutout to Rebels’ redshirt freshman goalkeeper Marnie Merritt. Merritt not only had an outstanding season for Ole Miss but she also went 2-2 taking penalty kicks while making some really excellent saves. On the other side, Coach Guerrieri deserves a ton of credit. Losing basically the entire starting lineup from last year’s College Cup squad, Coach G takes a team with almost all underclassmen starters, and a fair share of injuries to key players, and is one win away from returning to the College Cup. The Aggies have found a way to grind out wins this tournament, and the fact they lose only three seniors should have teams very nervous about facing them next season.

What Gives Texas A&M an Advantage?

The Aggies’ advantage lies in their fearless attack. Underclassmen Haley Pounds, Emily Bates, and Ally Watt have combined for 27 total goals, which accounts for a whopping 55% of the team’s offense this season. While there’s certainly a disadvantage in their lack of experience on a big stage, they also haven’t been around enough to know they don’t have any business hanging with Florida State this weekend. Pounds is the leading goalscorer with 13, and has been increasingly clutch in just her sophomore season. Texas A&M has only been shutout once this season, and these three are a big reason why it’s so tough to keep A&M off the board.

Even Florida State couldn’t keep the shutout in the teams’ matchup earlier this season, which ended in a 3-1 win for the Seminoles. Bates got on the board early, and if it wasn’t for a second-half meltdown by the Aggies’ defense it might have stood as the game-winner. If Texas A&M can reproduce that first half they played against Florida State back in September, and sustain it for a full 90 minutes, this game might be closer than some are predicting. That being said, the loss of Mikaela Harvey due to her overtime red card this weekend could have already sealed the Aggies’ fate. To beat Florida State, A&M will definitely have to win the midfield, and that’s a tall task even with Harvey in the lineup.

What Gives Florida State an Advantage?

The Seminoles have been here before, and that’s what gives them an edge. When I say here, that can mean a number of things. Here can mean the quarterfinals. Florida State has made the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament the past 11 years. Here can mean a matchup with the Aggies. Florida State played Texas A&M just two months ago and pulled out a 3-1 victory. It seems that the Seminoles have really seen it all. No matter what situation presents itself in this match, Florida State will be ready for it. I’m not sure how you catch a team like this off guard. They’re confident, expect to win, and are, of course, a really excellent soccer team. Perhaps the perfect foil of A&M — the young, overachieving team playing with nothing to lose — Florida State has been there, done that, and done it again. The Seminoles have a title to defend, and it seems that they’ll let nothing stop them until they’re in Cary, North Carolina — perhaps facing off with familiar foe Virginia yet again.

Who Heads to the College Cup?

Florida State logoSince day one I’ve been tooting Florida State’s horn, and it’s been so far so good for the Seminoles. Florida State has notched 14 shutouts this season, and has yet to allow a goal in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Take into account that Texas A&M has scored the least goals out of any team left in the quarterfinals and you’ve got to wonder how the Aggies are going to crack the Seminoles’ excellent back line. In fact, Florida State isn’t even giving teams a chance to score, allowing just three shots on goal over the past three games. Texas A&M is converting just one out of every four shots on goal, and considering it may only be getting one shot come Saturday, the Aggies’ finishing is going to have to change. With potentially eight underclassmen starting a high stakes game, we may see the Aggies start on their heels, allowing a team like Florida State to take advantage and punishes them for that. I think we’ll see the defending champs back in the College Cup for yet another year.

— by Rachael Caldwell

Bracket Quadrant #2

Quarterfinal Match

#3 Duke vs. #1 Stanford on Friday, November 27th at 10pm ET in Stanford, California

Thoughts On the Second and Third Rounds

Alright, so maybe that limb I went out on in favor of Duke last week was shorter and sturdier than it looked. William & Mary delivered what it could in the second round, falling under a barrage from the Gators that concluded 2-5. Duke held fast in the match against Florida Gulf Coast, grinding out a 2-0 shutout win through a Duke-100x100rough second half. The anticipated Florida-Duke third-round matchup set up as expected, with Florida bringing a heavy but limited offense (bolstered by junior Meggie Dougherty Howard, who went unmentioned in the last post) and Duke bringing a staunch defense and smart spread of offense. Although Florida opened the scoring with a goal provided by substitute Sarah Troccoli in the first half, Duke didn’t sweat over the lead, tying it up again within 10 minutes. Florida’s Savannah Jordan was held to just two shots in her 90 minutes on the pitch, and despite being the first ones on the board, the Gators were held to just nine shots overall, seven of those coming in the second half. Conversely, the Blue Devils tallied eight shots per half and a goal each half, scored by Rebecca Quinn and Taylor Racioppi, respectively. With a limited lead throughout much of the second half, Duke didn’t grow complacent, ultimately holding onto that scoreline until the final whistle for a win. Duke is now 3-0 against Florida in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s just in the past five years.

Seeing Stanford versus Arizona in the third round also wasn’t unexpected. In the Pac-12 meets WCC Stanford-100x100second-round matchups, both Pac-12 teams advanced with 2-1 victories. But beyond that, Stanford wasn’t interested in seeing double. The regular season’s 3-2 double overtime win over Arizona would not be repeated in the third round. Instead, the Cardinal put together a 3-0 clean sheet in 90 minutes, giving Jane Campbell her tenth shutout of the season. Ryan Walker-Hartshorn provided two of those goals off the bench in the second half, and fellow junior Megan Turner scored the game-winner in the first. The Cardinal is now 20-2-0 against the Wildcats.

What Gives Duke an Advantage?

The same qualities that gave Duke the advantage over Florida and helped against stronger teams in the regular season can’t be overlooked here: a variety of offensive options, solid defense, and smart play. The Blue Devils can draw confidence not only from beating top-ranked and higher seed Florida but also their performances against the top teams of the ACC throughout the season. In postgame comments, head coach Robbie Church pointed to his team’s results against two other quadrants’ top seeds, a 1-0 loss at Virginia and scoreless draw against Florida State at home. He likewise mentioned their away game record, with the two recent wins coming in Florida. Overall this season, Duke is 3-2-3 on the road, 7-2-3 when including neutral sites. At this point in the season, a tie won’t stand; penalty kicks decide the outcome. Neither team has played to penalty kicks yet in this year’s tournament, but if it comes to that, Duke (via Christina Gibbons) is 2-3 on penalty kicks this season and 2-2 in the tournament so far. That’s reaching, but when the situation is make-or-break, you take whatever confidence you can. Looking at goalkeepers, Duke’s EJ Proctor’s record is more than comparable to Stanford’s youth national team keeper, Jane Campbell. Proctor holds an equal 10 shutouts on the season, but more saves and a higher percentage of saves at 65 and .823.

What Gives Stanford an Advantage?

The Cardinal are far from a one-note when it comes to goal production. Four players have five goals on the year. Three players have four or more assists. I’m not saying Duke had it easy facing Florida, but Stanford shares most of the same advantages Duke had against the Gators. Opponents might be able to shut down one or two attack options, but this Stanford squad is well aware of its ability to create others. Head coach Paul Ratcliffe doesn’t even need to dig deep into his bench to keep the competition on its toes; he has been conservative with subbing in the postseason, relying mainly on Walker-Hartshorn and Averie Collins, who have consistently delivered. And much like Duke, the strong backline is worthy of note. The even mix of veteran leadership and youth is anchored by junior Jane Campbell, now sitting on 30 career shutouts. If Campbell’s stats look a step behind Proctor’s heading into this weekend, much credit can be given to possession and the defensive unit in front of her.

Who Heads to the College Cup?

Stanford-100x100This should be a fun game of smart soccer from an impartial viewer’s standpoint, but Duke is going to need a perfect storm of confidence, steadiness, precision, and energy to go back to Carolina to play rather than sit at home. Maybe a bit of luck, too. Stanford is 19-2-1 after a schedule full of strong opponents and 12-1-1 at home. The Card haven’t lost since September, have won four of their five overtime games, and have shut out three of their last five opponents. And in the past five years, Stanford holds a 3-0 record over Duke. Duke looks good this year, but Stanford looks better. The Pac-12 champion very clearly earned its No. 1 seeding. Since there’s no predicting mindset when a team is being carried by youth, Stanford is my narrow pick over Duke here.

— by Ruth Moore

Bracket Quadrant #3

Quarterfinal Match

#2 West Virginia vs. #1 Penn State on Saturday, November 28 at 4pm ET in University Park, Pennsylvania

Thoughts on the Second and Third Rounds

Loyola Marymount scored an own goal in the final minutes of the first half and were tied, 2-2 with the No. 2 seed, WestVirginia-100x100West Virginia. While already recording the first and second NCAA victories in program history, the Lions continued to play on the front foot by disrupting the rhythm of their opponents with a tight, man-marking system. They dispatched No. 3 Cal and then Minnesota of the Big Ten and now had sights on delivering another shock, this time to the fourth-ranked team in the country. Unfortunately for LMU, Kailey Utley’s scoring drought ended. WVU’s senior captain, without a goal in nearly a month, recorded her first career hat trick — all in the second half — and West Virginia advanced, 5-2.

The bracket also featured an all Big Ten Sweet 16 with No. 1 Penn State the host to Ohio State. The Buckeyes gained confidence in the 1-0 upset over No. 4 Virginia Tech in the second round on Arden Holden’s first career Penn State Universitygoal. An adjustment to push dynamic attacker Nichelle Prince from a central role to the wing proved fruitful. Prince set up the game-winner from a wide position, slipping a pass to Holden who was inserted as a striker for the first time in her career.  Prince started wide again versus Penn State but saw little of the ball and Ohio State failed to deliver anything that would unsettle Penn State keeper Britt Eckerstrom. The Nittany Lions scored just before the interval on Megan Schafer’s B1G-leading 13th goal and made it 2-0 just a minute into the second half on Elizabeth Ball’s floating header off a set piece. The Buckeyes were deflated and Penn State finished with a 4-0 triumph.

What Gives West Virginia an Advantage?

Kailey Utley is no longer in a slump. She scored the game-winner against Oklahoma State on Oct. 23 and failed to score another until her second-half rampage against LMU. Seven of her team-leading 12 goals have been game winners. The seniors tend to be more urgent as they visualize the end of their collegiate careers.  Goalkeeper Hannah Steadman, following a tradition of top keepers in Morgantown, is also tending to her final season and comes off a seven-save outing in the Sweet 16 match. Steadman couldn’t get a sniff at Tennessee, transferred to WVU and led the Big 12 in clean sheets in ’14 and ’15. The Mountaineers are one of the stingiest teams in the country, conceding only nine times in 22 matches.

The seniors are capably complemented by a pair of Canadian National Team stars. Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, both starters for the hosts in last summer’s World Cup, provide international experience along with Canadian Youth National Team members Bianca St. Georges, Amandine Pierre-Louis, and Easther Mayi Kith. WVU also features U.S. U-17 member, Michaela Abam, who shares the team lead in goals (12) and will crank it up from almost anywhere (107 shots).

What Gives Penn State an Advantage?

How about a 35-6-1 record in NCAA Tournament matches at Jeffrey Field while outscoring their postseason opponents, 115-30? And 15 of those goals have come in the first three rounds of this year’s event — easily the most prolific of the remaining eight teams in the field. Overall, Penn State boasts an all-time Happy Valley mark of 216-24-10. Home pitch advantage cannot be overstated — it is meaningful and the statistics support those claims. After juggling the shape of the team over the course of the season, head coach Erica Walsh has settled in on a 4-5-1 system which benefits the midfield where Nickolette Driesse, Raquel Rodriguez, and Emily Ogle form arguably the nation’s best triangle in the center of the park. Megan Schafer features in the No. 9 role and has excelled with tools that handle all the responsibilities of the single striker. She leads her side with 13 goals. Like WVU, the Nittany Lions have strong leadership at the back with the fifth-year senior goalkeeper Eckerstrom. She has mentored a back line of talented underclassmen, a unit that has surrendered a miserly 0.58 goals per game. Underclassmen have also scored 32 of the 59 goals for Penn State. Only three seniors see significant minutes and although young, a majority of the key youngsters have youth national team experience (Ogle, Brittany Basinger, Maddie Elliston, Ellie Jean) while Rodriguez offers full international contributions after scoring Costa Rica’s very first goal in the recent World Cup.

Who Heads to the College Cup?

On September 4, West Virginia defeated Penn State, 1-0 at Dick Dlesk Field where the Mountaineers were perfect this season (13-0). Outside of the vengeance factor, that result will have little meaning on Saturday. This quarterfinal, in my humble opinion, is the most difficult to call. While Penn State and West Virginia aren’t mirror images of each other, they offer numerous players with international experience — therefore, the anticipated pressures that surround a potential trip to the College Cup are a bit mediated. Both teams are secure in goal and each side has superior attacking weapons. It is safe to say, with all due respect to the quality opponents on their ’15 schedules, that neither Penn State nor West Virginia have had to deal with the multitude of attacking options they will encounter on Saturday.

WestVirginia-100x100Nikki Izzo-Brown’s lengthy journey with the Mountaineers has led to this seminal moment for her program. She’s had attractive offers to leave Morgantown during her run of success but bleeds the Blue and Gold. I think it’s time. While Penn State has been dominant in their home encounters this season (their lone defeat was to Minnesota) and have been to the College Cup as recently as 2012, WVU will score early and hold on at the end for a 2-1 victory and its first trip to the Final Four.

— by Glenn Crooks

Bracket Quadrant #4

Quarterfinal Match

#2 Rutgers vs. #1 Virginia on Friday, November 27 at 2pm ET in Charlottesville, Virginia

Thoughts on Second and Third Rounds

We start in the Virginia subregion where all three matches went in favor of the seeds. Virginia was too good for a UNC-Wilmington side in the second round as the CAA side was fortunate to go into the locker room scoreless. small virginia cavaliers logoWhen you hold a 28-1 shot advantage, more often than not the team with the higher goal margin breaks through, and it did. On the other side of this region, Southern California was clinical in front of the net against Princeton. A pair of goals from Morgan Andrews brought her postseason tally to five, breaking the Trojan record for most goals scored in the postseason by a Trojan (passing U.S. Women’s National Team frontrunner and USC alum Amy Rodriguez). It was tighter than anticipated in the third-round match between the Cavaliers and Trojans but Virginia scored right before halftime through Makenzy Doniak, giving the Cavaliers the lift they needed before scoring their second goal 10 minutes before the final whistle.

In Piscataway, the upset of this bracket came when UConn defeated Notre Dame, 2-0, in the second round. While I saw this as a possibility in our second- and third-round preview, Notre Dame came out swinging and dominated the Huskies in the first half. When you don’t finish your chances and allow the opposition to hang around, especially when the opposition has a great goalscorer like Rachel Hill, you’ll be punished. Hill scored a pair of Rutgers logosecond-half goals and, despite the Irish outshooting UConn 15-7, the Huskies reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. Rutgers put in another business-as-usual performance in a 2-0 win over Hofstra in the second round behind an early own goal and a 20th minute goal from Brianne Reed. Goalkeeper Casey Murphy earned her 17th clean sheet of the season but had to save Hofstra’s top striker Leah Galton’s penalty kick right after the hour mark to preserve the shutout. Two days later, it was more of the same from Rutgers as it defeated old Big East foe UConn, 4-0. The Scarlet Knights finished their home campaign with an outstanding 13-0-1 record and have put the college women’s soccer world on notice as they travel to Charlottesville for the Elite Eight this week

What Gives Rutgers an Advantage?

Confidence. This Rutgers team is oozing confidence in how they’re playing and sometimes that’s all you need in a tournament like this. The numbers are stacked against the Scarlet Knights historically as Virginia has defeated Rutgers once in each of the last three years, with all three matches being played at Klöckner Stadium. But when the Scarlet Knights have posted 18 clean sheets and have won 19 games, both new single-season program records, throw the old records out of the window. Rutgers will need to continue to do what it does best, which is being defensively tough to break down, especially when dealing with Virginia’s possession-based attack and it arsenal of talented strikers. If the Scarlet Knights can keep themselves in the match by frustrating Virginia and force the Cavaliers to play outside of their system, they could be the ones traveling to Cary and the College Cup.

What Gives Virginia an Advantage?

This Virginia team is experienced in how to step up and win a big match when it matters. The Cavaliers have been in the Elite Eight three times in the last four years and have reached the College Cup in consecutive years. This group had to go through the defending champions UCLA a year ago to get to the College Cup. So the Cavaliers will be banking on that experience going into this weekend as they will be facing Rutgers, who has never reached the Elite Eight before in program history. It also helps that Virginia will be playing at home in this match, a place where it is 12-1-0 and have allowed just three goals.

Who Heads to the College Cup?

Everything tells me that this match may be the tightest of the four Elite Eight matches this week. Both teams are strong defensively with Virginia slightly stronger on the offensive side. And in going by the overriding theme of this season, anything and everything can and will happen. Which is why I think Rutgers has a real chance of winning this game. They’re peaking at the right time and Mike O’Neill’s side has proven they deserve to be here and are one of the best teams in the nation.

small virginia cavaliers logoBut. I’m also a big believer in fate. And fate tells me that Virginia will get a second chance at Florida State in the national championship game. The Cavaliers had never been to the championship game before last year when they fell to the Seminoles by a cruel 1-0 scoreline. I’m not saying just yet if Virginia wins that matchup this year but the one thing I do know is that Virginia will find a way to get back to Cary. So it will be the Cavaliers for me this weekend, perhaps in extra time.

— by JJ Duke


Rachael Caldwell will be graduating from the University of Arkansas in 2015 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and minors in Spanish and Business Management. Rachael played soccer from when she was three until her senior year of high school, where she was the captain of her state championship winning team. Rachael looks forward to writing more for Our Game Magazine and also writes about women’s soccer on her blog, rachaelfc.wordpress.com.

Glenn Crooks is the former Head Women’s Soccer Coach at Rutgers University. Crooks is currently the color analyst for New York City FC on WFAN and a soccer commentator for the Big Ten Network. Additionally, Crooks is a host on SiriusXM FC 85 for World Cup Now, the Carli Lloyd Town Hall, and Counter Attack. He is also head coach of the Players Development Academy, N.J. Olympic Development Program, and a staff coach at U.S. Soccer National Training Centers, as well as a coach advisor for Polar USA. Follow Crooks on twitter at@GlennCrooks.

JJ Duke graduated from Rider University in New Jersey with a degree in Digital Media Studies. Although his playing days may have ended back in high school, he still prides himself on being a decent shot-stopper and an all-around fanatic of the beautiful game (fervent supporter of Manchester United and the founder of a Rider supporters group, the 206 Ultras). He was the Student General Manager at 107.7 FM The Bronc while at Rider and contributed to various local newspaper and Web sites in the Trenton, NJ, area of high school and collegiate sports includingTand Fish4Scores.com.

Ruth Moore serves Our Game Magazine as a College Editor and the magazine’s Design Editor. She holds a degree in Professional Writing from Kutztown University, freelances in communication design, and loves coffee.