N.C. State’s women’s soccer team is not expected to beat Pepperdine on Friday in the NCAA tournament to get a crack at No. 1 seed Stanford.
The Wolfpack (10-8-2) wasn’t expected to get this far, either, so pardon its indifference to anyone else’s expectations.
“We already blew out all the expectations everyone had for us this season,” freshman midfielder Tziarra King said. “At this point, we’re just playing, having fun, doing our thing. There’s no pressure on us.”
No pressure because coach Tim Santoro’s fourth team, after going winless in ACC play in 2014 and ’15, won four conference games this season and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
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The Wolfpack wasn’t just content to make the tournament, it went to fourth-seeded Minnesota last Saturday and advanced to the second round on penalty kicks after playing to a 0-0 tie in overtime.
Sophomore keeper Sydney Wootten made two saves in the penalty kick phase to push the Wolfpack through to Friday’s second-round game with Pepperdine (13-4-3). The game will be played at Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the region who will face Santa Clara on Friday. The winners will meet on Sunday at Stanford for a spot in the Elite Eight.
The Wolfpack is led by a talented group of freshmen and sophomores, including King, who leads the team with eight goals, and Wootten, who has six shutouts.
Given soccer’s recruiting cycle, which takes two years to put a class together, Santoro knew the program could make a jump this season with an influx of talent.
A former assistant at Wake Forest, he saw the same process propel the Demon Deacons to the College Cup, soccer’s Final Four, in 2011.
“It’s really not a secret,” Santoro said. “Talent is a big piece to winning, and we have that now.”
Talent doesn’t necessarily equate to mental toughness, which has been a trademark of Santoro’s young team. The players have played through injuries and an October losing streak.
“There’s really nothing that can come our way right now that will faze us, which is surprising for such a young team,” Santoro said. “Maybe they’re just naive, and they don’t know any better.”
N.C. State got off to a fast start in ACC play, after going 0-20 the previous two years, with a 1-0 win at North Carolina on Sept. 16. It was N.C. State’s first-ever road win over the powerful Tar Heels.
The Wolfpack started 3-1-1 in league play before it hit the toughest part of the schedule. It lost four straight games, to four of the 16 teams seeded in the NCAA tournament (Duke, Florida State, Virginia, Clemson).
But the losses didn’t break the young team’s will.
“We took every game with a grain of salt,” sophomore defender Ella Bonner said. “We outplayed a lot of teams, but we didn’t get the result. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
The Wolfpack closed out the regular season with a 2-1 home win over Pittsburgh to make the ACC tournament, where it lost 1-0 to Notre Dame.
When the NCAA field was unveiled, N.C. State was the seventh ACC team to get in. The other six teams were national seeds and got to host in the first round.
N.C. State had to go on the road and has a tough road to navigate out west. Santoro said his team has been loose and relaxed and will stay that way as long as the tournament run lasts.
And why not, King asked, nobody expected N.C. State to get this far.
“Everyone else was like, ‘Oh, bottom of the ACC,’ and counting us out,” King said. “That’s what gave us the motivation to strive to get here.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio