There are so many must-watch games this week that it was difficult to choose one to lead off my column. The obvious go-to choice would be No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 Stanford. Penn State-Rutgers and Florida State-Virginia Tech were up for consideration, too.
But I selected Kansas-Texas because of all the previously mentioned teams, the No. 11 Jayhawks have the biggest opportunity to prove they belong in the conversation of the year’s best teams.
Remember, last year, Kansas wasn't even above .500. The Jayhawks posted a disappointing 7-11-2 record and were ousted from the Big 12 Conference tournament in the first round.
Heading into Friday’s match against the Longhorns in Austin, Kansas sits on top of the Big 12 standings with a 3-0-0 mark – the first time the Jayhawks have won their first three league matches since 2001.
Head coach Mark Francis said the team’s marked improvement – the Jayhawks boast a 13-1-0 mark – is attributed to several factors. Kansas lost just three seniors from last year’s squad, and after a frustrating season, the returnees did not want a repeat performance. Francis emphasized the players’ strength and conditioning regimen during the spring, and about 90 percent of the team enrolled in both summer school sessions and were able to play pick-up games with each other.
Francis also made a few changes on the backline, including moving senior defender Caroline Van Slambrouck to centerback.
“That move for us has been significant in terms of what she has been able to do defensively,” said Francis. “We haven’t given up very many goals.”
“We understand we’re all connected and we all have to perform well for us to win,” said Van Slambrouck.
In addition, fifth-year senior goalkeeper Kaitlyn Stroud is having the best season of her career. Stroud has compiled a league-leading 0.46 goals against average, which is a career low. Kansas has yet to give up more than one goal in a game this season.
The Jayhawks’ stellar start to the season has propelled them to No. 11 in the latest NSCAA Division I Top 25. Their only setback was a 1-0 loss to Marquette and they are riding a five-game winning streak into the contest.
“You get confident, but I think we have done a very good job at understanding that we are beatable and we’re not invincible,” said Van Slambrouck. “We have to show up with our best game because opponents will show up with their best game.”
But the Jayhawks will be put through the ringer for the rest of the regular season, starting with Friday’s game in Austin at 7 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast live on the Longhorn Network. Kansas has suffered 1-0 losses to Texas (7-4-2) in each of the last two seasons.
“Everyone understands (Texas) is a big game,” said Van Slambrouck. “If we can win this game that’s going to put us in a great position going forward. It’s an opportunity for us to prove our rankings are correct and we are a very good team.”
“We only have five games left in the regular season but they are five very tough games,” Francis said. “We’ve done well up to this point, but our season is really going to be determined in the next five games.”
After the Texas match, the Jayhawks return home to host a pair of nationally-ranked squads – Texas Tech and West Virginia – next weekend.
AROUND THE NATION
Buckle your seatbelts – the most-anticipated showdown of the year happens Thursday night when No. 1 UCLA hosts No. 2 Stanford for a clash of Pac-12 foes. Stanford leads the nation with a 0.159 goals against average, while UCLA ranks third with a 0.241 GAA. The two teams have allowed a combined five goals in 24 games played behind goalkeepers Jane Campbell (Stanford) and Katelyn Rowland (UCLA). Stanford leads the all-time series 12-11-3, but UCLA has won the last two matches in the series. The game can be seen on the Pac-12 Networks at 8 p.m. PT.
No. 20 Rutgers rolls into State College on a six-game unbeaten streak as the Scarlet Knights meet No. 6 Penn State for a Big Ten battle at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Rutgers (9-1-1) is off to its best start since 2009, but the Nittany Lions have been cruising through conference play with a 7-0-0 mark. The Scarlet Knights have outshot all of their opponents this year, but Penn State tops the Big Ten in scoring. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network.
No. 8 Pepperdine (11-1-1) has posted the program’s best record through 13 games and owns a seven-game winning streak since losing its only match to No. 1 UCLA earlier this year. With two home league victories last weekend, the Waves hit the road to face West Coast Conference foes Saint Mary’s and Pacific this weekend. The Waves have tallied a WCC-best seven shutouts and goalkeeper Hannah Seabert paces the league with a 0.61 goals against average.
DePaul rose to No. 13 in the latest rankings and is one of only three teams in the nation without a loss – Stanford and UCLA are the other two and they face each other Thursday. DePaul enters Saturday’s Big East match against Creighton on a program-record 13-game unbeaten streak. The Blue Demon offense ranks 20th in the nation with a 2.38 scoring average, while sophomore Abby Reed is second in the NCAA with six game-winning goals.
SIDEKICKS:Colgate rides a nine-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1) into a Patriot League matchup at Holy Cross on Saturday … San Diego State is off to a 4-0-0 start in Mountain West Conference play and has an 11-game winning streak in league play dating back to last season … Harvard is unbeaten in its last five games, but has not scored in the last two contests. The Crimson ranks 10th in the nation with a 0.473 GAA … With a pair of victories over Grand Canyon and Bakersfield last weekend, Seattle University extended its winning streak against Western Athletic Conference competition to 15 games dating back to last season.
Amy Farnum Patronis covers women's Division I college soccer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at email@example.com