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2016 NCAA Mid-Major Watch: If the Shoe Fits, Who is Our Tournament Cinderella?

As we inch closer to the end of the regular season in women’s college soccer, we usually focus our attention on the teams ranked in the OGM Top 25. Now we shift our attention to some of the teams you may not know of but might make some noise as we head to the postseason.

Although much of the focus during the NCAA women’s soccer season tends to shift toward the power conferences (ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, and so on), there are 31 conferences at the Division I level that sponsor women’s soccer and each conference will send at least one team to the NCAA Tournament next month. All 64 teams that enter the tournament have great stories and a star player or two who helped lead their team to the big stage. For a few of these teams from auto-bid-only conferences, however, just getting to the tournament isn’t enough and when the stars align, we see upsets. As we head toward conference championship season, let’s take a look at a few teams that could make some noise if they qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Editor’s ego note — Three of the seven teams from this list last year did, in fact, win their conference tournament, and two teams won their first-round NCAA match, so pay attention here as our crystal ball sometimes is pretty good.

Saint Joseph’s (Atlantic 10)

A year removed from setting a program record for wins in a single season (12) and a three seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, this year’s version is already 12-1-2 and are poised to make a deep run this season. The Hawks saw their season come to an end in the quarterfinals this year and have only made it past the quarterfinals once (coming back in ’04) but they have rebounded nicely in 2016 and a main reason for that is Dakota Mills. After a freshman campaign of 10 goals and 3 assists, she’s gone on a tear this year by scoring a dozen goals and bagging the game-winner this past weekend at Duquesne, a team that sits just below Saint Joe’s in the conference table. They do have a testing match against Saint Louis on Thursday night but the school that lives by the motto of The Hawk Will Never Die will be doing their very best to keep this great season going at full flight.

Cal-State Northridge (Big West)

The Matadors have had kind of a funky season this year, one that has been plagued by five draws. But the majority of these draws have come against solid teams (Pepperdine, San Diego, and Oregon State to name a few), and they have gotten results in conference play. Funny enough, they only have two matches left in conference play and they won’t come until next week. And I’m not sure if head coach Keith West knew at the time that scheduling Oklahoma for this Sunday in a late season non-conference match would become important, but boy, facing a team that has shown really well this season in the Big 12 and could be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament will come in handy. Defense is a key factor for this team as senior defender Nicole Thompson, who recently won the Big West Defender of the Week award, anchors a back line that has posted a program record 13 shutouts this season. Keeper Jovani McCaskill has been a big factor in that as well, recording 13 clean sheets while allowing just seven goals all season.

Columbia (Ivy League)

Remember at the beginning of the season when I said the Ivy League could have two teams in the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, well I was thinking it was going to be along the lines of Princeton (1-2-1 in Ivy league play) and Harvard (2-0-2 in the conference). Albeit both of those teams have a shout of an at-large bid since both sides’ RPIs are in a decent enough position. But Columbia has stolen the show this season. In four conference matches, they have yet to allow a goal and are coming off a 2-0 win at home to Princeton this past weekend, along with an Ivy slate opening week win at Brown, who have also played the role of conference darlings this year. While goal scoring has been somewhat by committee this season, the goalkeeping tandem of Allison Spencer and Sophie Whitehouse have been nearly flawless this year as the duo has helped post nine shutouts and are a big factor in why the Lions are still in it. With the Ivy League having no postseason tournament, they are home to bottom-running Dartmouth this weekend before traveling to the pesky Yale Bulldogs next weekend, and Harvard the weekend after. Could that November 5 match in Cambridge be a possible coronation of this surprising Columbia team? One will only find out.

Monmouth (MAAC)

This is one of two teams that return to this list from last year’s Mid-Major Watch. As someone who spent his four years doing undergraduate work and the three years afterward broadcasting sports in the MAAC, I was stunned as ever as Monmouth, who clinched the regular-season title last year and hosted the tournament, lost in the semifinals to Siena. But last year was last year and this year I’m still sticking with my guns (and going against the wishes of my alma mater) and picking Monmouth to win the MAAC. While the Hawks don’t have a big-name win on their résumé this year (a win at Seton Hall sort of fills that role), they have destroyed their opposition in conference this year. They’ve outscored their MAAC opponents 30-3 through eight games this year, including bagging six against my beloved, and currently running second in the MAAC, Rider Broncs on the road and don’t look like they will be beaten anytime soon (though, they did tie Fairfield on Wednesday night, in a shocking nil-all draw). They are led by a freshman phenom striker in Madie Gibson (8 goals, 6 assists), who is tied for the conference lead in points and senior taliswoman Alexis McTamney, a holder of 30 goals, 23 assists in her career and are almost assured of winning the conference regular-season title for the fourth straight season.

UNLV (Mountain West)

We don’t often hear much from the Mountain West when talking about women’s college soccer. Don’t know why to be honest, but this year, we have a front-runner in UNLV. It’s usually the likes of San Jose State and San Diego State who take the headlines in this conference but the Rebels are 13-3-1 with an RPI inside the top 80. They don’t have many headline victories to their name that they can hang their hat on in case they don’t win the Mountain West Tournament, but they have been consistent in the later part of the season. And part of that consistency has been their goal scoring as the Rebels have netted close to two-and-a-half goals per game this season, led by Hawaiian-born senior striker Lily Sender, who has scored a career-high 10 goals in 17 matches (not bad for a player who scored just once in three previous years). Unbeaten in their last seven with their only blemish coming in a 1-1 draw to San Diego State, they will need to continue that run of good form as they face a couple of dangerous matches this weekend as they welcome in fifth-placed Boise State and fourth placed Utah State.

Bucknell (Patriot)

Remember back a couple of weeks ago when we talked about the teams without a loss? Yeah, Bucknell is STILL THERE, folks. Bucknell and South Carolina have yet to experience a loss this year as the Bison are 12-0-1 and a perfect 6-0 in Patriot League action. In a conference that is always dominated by the likes of Boston University and Navy, this gritty team has found a way to outlast all comers but they still have a few tests ahead of them, including a sneaky match at the end of October away to Princeton. Even still, this is a great story to keep your eye on, led by Kendall Ham’s 12-goal season and Jessica Ratner’s near spotless 0.48 GAA and .880 save percentage. They will have to battle through three rounds of conference tournament play to get to the promised land but, unlike in other conferences with a set location or the top seed hosting all games, it’s higher seed hosts each round, so that will be a big plus for Bucknell if they can hang onto that top spot.

Central Arkansas (Southland)

UCA is another team we highlighted earlier this season in our Editor’s Choice Game of the Week. And we caught the Bears at just the right time as they beat long-time rival Stephen F. Austin, 2-1, back on October 7 with a goal from their senior star Camille Bassett. They backed up their key win against the LadyJacks with wins at Houston Baptist and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (most impressively by the way: 6-2 with a Bassett hat trick, who now has 12 goals on the season). And winning at TAMCC is important for their morale as the Southland tournament will take place at the home of the Islanders. With a couple of wins in their last three matches, they should take the top seed by virtue of a near-perfect conference record at 7-0-1, this will be a tough team to knock off in a few weeks.

South Alabama (Sun Belt)

Last year, we highlighted USA in this segment because they have been the perennial winners of the Sun Belt for the last three years, but have always lost to Florida State. Well, that happened again last year… in the second round, a place where the Jaguars had have never been before. But South Alabama got some much needed revenge against the Seminoles after beating the then No. 1 team in the land on their turf earlier this year. Also, they became the first Sun Belt team to host an NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament game as they handled LSU 4-0 in the first round last season. And this year’s team returns plenty of the 2015 squad, including top striker Charde Hannah, who now has 34 career goals and struck the winner in the team’s victory over the Seminoles earlier this season. So combining that earlier win over Florida State with a non-conference win at Ole Miss and their usual strong pedigree in the postseason, this is a team I would want to avoid playing in the NCAA Tournament.