Sixty-four teams will get down to the business of playing for the NCAA womens soccer championship this weekend as first-round play gets under way Friday and Saturday.
Reigning champion North Carolina, one of four ACC schools to get a No.1 seed, will open play at home at 2p.m. Saturday against Big South champion Liberty. Duke, which turned its season around during mid-October and made a strong run to qualify for the ACC and NCAA tournaments, will travel to Colorado College for a 3 p.m. (EST) Saturday contest.
The surviving 32 teams wont play again until the second and third rounds return to campus sites Nov.22 and 24. Ultimately, four teams will make their way to Carys WakeMed Soccer Park for the College Cup, soccers final four. Thats where the ACC contested its tournament semifinals and final last weekend, making an appropriate bookend for the postseason.
UNC (17-4) enters the postseason with a degree of uncertainty, however. Crystal Dunn, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and the 2012 Hermann Award winner as national player of the year, sat out last weeks ACC semifinal against Florida State with a leg injury that coach Anson Dorrance described as a muscle problem.
She wont play against Liberty, and her status for any games next week is uncertain. Thats a big loss, because she might be the most electrifying player in college soccer. Operating in central midfield, the senior usually finds plenty of space to put her speed to use. She also is a superb finisher, with 13 goals and five assists. Last week, she led the Tar Heels to a 1-0 win against Boston College in the ACC quarterfinals when she skied above several taller players, including the goalkeeper, to head in the game-winner. Her scoring carried the Tar Heels through last years NCAA tournament.
Without Dunn, Dorrance opted for a more conservative alignment Friday during a 2-1 overtime loss to the Seminoles, who went on to win the ACC tournament.
We were playing without Crystal Dunn, our top offensive player, and without Caitlin Ball, our top defender, and we played them better than we did early in the season, Dorrance said. So thats very encouraging to me.
Dunn is expected back soon, but Ball, a defender from East Chapel Hill High, wont be back on the field for the Tar Heels. She suffered a concussion during the Oct.27 game against Wake Forest and hasnt played since. The schedule favors giving Dunn some time off, though. UNC should have more than enough firepower to handle Liberty (16-5-1), which is coached by former N.C. State player Jessica Hain, formerly Jessica Celi.
After the Flames, UNC would be in line for a matchup with either Indiana or DePaul. In the third round the Tar Heels could meet SEC champion Texas A&M, the fourth seed in the region, or Big 12 champion Texas Tech, which is coached by former Duke star Tom Stone.
Blue Devils homecoming: Two of Dukes starters on defense, redshirt junior goalkeeper Meghan Thomas and freshman defender Lizzy Raben, will have a homecoming when the Blue Devils play at Colorado College. Thomas hails from Castle Rock, Colo., about 45 minutes from Colorado Springs, and Raben is from Greenwood Village, just more than an hour north.
Im definitely excited to go back to Colorado, Thomas said. Definitely a lot of my friends will be at the game, and my parents, and the parents of my club teammates.
The Blue Devils might not be making an NCAA trip if not for Thomas. After recovering at midseason from a shoulder injury, she won the starting job and has turned in a 5-3-1 record, with three shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.93.
Duke went on a five-game unbeaten run (4-0-1) to get back above .500, although the Blue Devils have dropped their most recent two contests, to UNC and Florida State.
Id like to think its not a coincidence that my team has confidence in me and Ive made some big saves, said Thomas, who at 6-foot-2 can be imposing in the net. But its definitely a team effort. Natasha Anasi is the other senior in back. Id like to think I was also a leader back there and that things fell in place.
Tobacco Road shutout: When the ACC mens tournament resumes Friday at Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md., none of the North Carolina-based schools will be there. UNC, Duke and Wake Forest were eliminated in the quarterfinals, and N.C. State didnt make the eight-team field.
UNC fell 2-1 at Clemson when the Tigers scored twice during the final 15 minutes. That negated a goal by Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler only 29 seconds into the match. Duke lost 1-0 at No.1-ranked but second-seeded Notre Dame, and No.9 Wake Forest fell 1-0 to then-No. 12 Virginia on a penalty kick in overtime. The Deacons were the only team to lose at home. The other result saw Maryland oust Boston College 2-0. Notre Dame (12-1-5) will try to avenge its only loss this season when it tangles with Virginia (10-4-4) at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and the top-seeded Terrapins (11-3-5) play Clemson (11-6-2) at 8.
Looking ahead: The UNC and Duke womens teams will be the only area teams in action this weekend. The area mens teams will wait for the NCAA tournament bids to be announced Monday (noon, NCAA.com). No.24 UNC (8-5-5) will make the 48-team field, but Duke (8-5-6) and N.C. State (8-5-4) are on the bubble. Duke, with an RPI of 42, is helped by victories over Clemson and N.C. State, whose RPI of 38 is buoyed by a win against UNC.