The first season of the ACC’s expanded women’s soccer campaign draws to a close this week, and not many of the coaches will shed a tear when the 13-game regular-season schedule is scrapped for something more manageable.
There were two drawbacks to playing so many conference games. Teams could play only six nonconference opponents, and the strength of the ACC left many teams scrambling for late-season victories just to stay above the .500 mark and remain eligible for an NCAA tournament berth.
Then there was the problem with the ACC Championship. Only eight of the 14 teams will qualify, so nearly half of the conference teams will finish playing in October. The distance between the haves and have-nots in the league will widen.
That’s why the coaches privately are talking about changes for next year. The most likely scenario will be that the 14 teams will be divided into two groups. For some reason they can’t be called divisions, like in football, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever they are – divisions, pods, state exchanges – teams could play six opponents in their own group, and four in the other. Of those latter four, one would be designated an annual opponent, while the other three would alternate each year.
That way, each four-year class would make at least one trip to each ACC opponent. Oh, and don’t expect the soccer coaches to adopt football’s Atlantic and Coastal divisions. That would put the majority of nationally ranked programs in the same division. A more likely split would be along North-South lines, which would group the four Tobacco Road schools with Clemson, Miami and Florida State in the South and the five former Big East schools joining Virginia and Virginia Tech in the North (Louisville replaces Maryland next year).
With the reduced conference schedule, it would also be possible for the ACC to expand its tournament to include 12 teams. Besides giving more teams a shot at the title, that format would provide the fifth through eighth seeds with a chance to get another victory, which could be crucial in securing NCAA tournament bids.
Postseason honors: It’s tough to single out anybody for player and coach of the year honors among the ACC women’s teams. There are two clear-cut candidates for both awards. Senior midfielder Crystal Dunn of UNC and junior midfielder Morgan Brian of Virginia have been the top two players in the league, and maybe nationally. They rank among the ACC’s top six in goals, assists and points, and both were called twice by U.S. coach Tom Sermanni for national team duty this fall.
The coaching honor also calls for a split ballot. Steve Swanson of Virginia has guided the Cavaliers (18-0, 12-0 ACC) to a No. 1 national ranking as the only unbeaten and untied team in the nation. Virginia Tech’s Charles “Chugger” Adair has taken the Hokies (14-2-2, 9-2-1) to a top-five national ranking in a breakthrough season. Those teams play each other Thursday night.
While we’re at it, let’s share the rookie award, too. Duke freshman Christina Gibbons of Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons has started every game for the Blue Devils at outside defender and leads the team in minutes played. N.C. State’s Jackie Stengel and Syracuse’s Stephanie Skilton, with nine goals and one assist each, are the highest-scoring freshmen in the league.
ACC women’s tournament: The top four seeds in points will be Virginia (36), Florida State (29), Virginia Tech (28) and UNC (27). They will host quarterfinal games at campus sites Sunday, although the order after top-seeded Virginia could be altered. Notre Dame (22) is a lock as the fifth seed, and Duke (18) could be anywhere from sixth to eighth. That leaves Wake Forest (17), Boston College (16), Maryland (15) and Clemson (14) scrambling for the last two spots.
ACC men’s tournament: With two ACC matches remaining apiece, only one team – Pittsburgh – of the 12 men’s teams in the league is out of the running for the eight spots in the ACC Championship, which begins Nov. 12 at campus sites. Four teams have locked up berths – Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Maryland and Clemson – but nobody has clinched a particular seed yet.
Looking ahead: The ACC women close out the regular season Thursday night, with Duke (8-6-4, 5-4-3) visiting No. 4 UNC (15-3, 9-3) and N.C. State (6-12, 1-11) hosting No. 22 Wake Forest (10-5-2, 5-5-2), both at 7 p.m. It’s the season finale for the Wolfpack, which stands 13th in the ACC standings.
The ACC men have two games apiece before the field is set for their conference tournament. All three area teams are on the road, with UNC (6-3-5, 3-1-5) at No. 15 Virginia (8-3-4, 3-2-4) and N.C. State (7-4-4, 2-4-3) at No. 8 Maryland (8-3-5, 5-1-3), both at 7 p.m. Friday. Duke (6-4-6, 1-3-5) visits Pittsburgh (0-9-4, 0-7-2) for a 7 p.m. Saturday match.