In August, the 2014 season started with 326 Division I teams sharing one dream – holding the NCAA trophy high on Dec. 7 in Boca Raton, Fla. Now, just 64 squads still have the opportunity to realize that dream as NCAA Tournament first-round play kicks off Friday. Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know before action begins:
PAC-12 PROWESS: A league record nine Pac-12 women’s soccer teams have advanced to the 2014 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship – making up 14 percent of the 64-team bracket announced Monday. The conference also boasts two top seeds – UCLA and Stanford – both of who have claimed national championship trophies in the last three seasons.
The Pac-12’s nine berths eclipses the league record set in 2009 and the nine league teams were the most of any conference. The SEC is sending eight teams, while the ACC and Big 12 each have six squads.
Defending NCAA champion and top-ranked UCLA (18-0-2) will make its 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance – the Bruins’ first as a No. 1 seed since 2009. UCLA is riding a 41-game unbeaten streak and enters the tournament on a seven-match shutout streak having not allowed a goal in 667 consecutive minutes.
"I think it's great, not only for us but for the Conference to get that overall No. 1 seed," said UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell. "It shows that the committee respected what the Pac-12 did as a conference and what we did nationally across the board with our whole body of work. It's a sign of respect, and we appreciate that."
Stanford (17-1-2) is tough to beat in the postseason and will look to extend its 21-match home winning streak in NCAA action against Cal State Fullerton in first round play Friday. The Cardinal also met the Titans in last year’s first-round match, edging Fullerton, 1-0, to stretch its streak of NCAA first-round victories to eight. Stanford’s lone loss was a 2-1 setback against the Bruins on Oct. 9.
WE MEET AGAIN (WEST COAST VERSION): The bracket is dotted with lots of rematches (and possible rematches) of regular season games, but will these do-overs churn out different results? San Diego has the pleasure of facing the No. 1 Bruins Friday – a rematch of UCLA’s 2-0 victory over the Toreros on Aug. 31. Barring a huge hiccup, the Bruins should survive and advance with ease. Plus, UCLA has history on its side. The Bruins own a 17-1-5 series record against the Toreros.
Pepperdine earned a No. 4 seed and will host USC Saturday as the Waves look to topple the Trojans for the second time this season. The Waves nipped USC, 2-1, on Sept. 21. It will also be the third time the two squads will meet in the NCAA postseason – Pepperdine picked up victories over USC in both 2001 and 2003.
WE MEET AGAIN (EAST COAST VERSION): West Virginia, the Big 12 champion, will host Georgetown Saturday in a rematch of a 1-1 double-overtime draw on Sept. 12 in Morgantown . The former BIG EAST foes will meet for the 19th time in series, which the Mountaineers lead 14-3-1. The Hoyas have never left Morgantown victorious (0-7-1) in series history. WVU enters the match on a program-record 18-game unbeaten streak that started after the squad dropped two of its first three games.
“I have a ton of respect for Georgetown,” said WVU head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown. “They came in here and tied us, and we know they’re a tough opponent. We’re going to prepare and get ready for that battle. We know what’s at stake and know that Georgetown is not an easy first-round game.”
FIRST-TIMERS: While exactly half of the 64-team bracket participated in the 2013 NCAA Championship, six of the remaining 32 teams are making their first appearance. New Hampshire (8-8-4), which posted a 4-8-6 mark in 2013, improved on last year’s campaign under first-year head coach Steve Welham, won the America East Championship and claimed the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA bid. Houston Baptist snapped Stephen F. Austin’s 14-game winning streak in the Southland Conference championship to earn the first-ever NCAA berth for an HBU women’s program. Buffalo, Prairie View A&M, Rider and SIU-Edwardsville are also in the NCAA postseason for the first time.
PALMETTO STATE SHOWDOWN: NCAA Tournament games are tough enough knowing you either win or go home. Add an instate rivalry to the mix and things get even more intense. That’s exactly what fans should expect Friday when Clemson visits South Carolina for a first-round tournament matchup. The Tigers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2007 after posting a 13-3-2 mark against a tough ACC slate. Clemson, which picked up a 1-0 victory at South Carolina on Sept. 5, owns a 12-8 advantage in the series.
BATTLE OF THE BIGS: DePaul, champion of the BIG EAST, heads to Madison to face Wisconsin, champion of the Big Ten, in a first-round match Saturday night. The Blue Demons (16-0-4) are one of two programs in the nation (along with UCLA) that remain unbeaten. The Badgers are looking to stay hot and are riding a nine-game unbeaten streak into NCAA first-round action. The Badgers, which rank third nationally with a 0.308 goals against average, could have their hands full with a DePaul offense that is averaging 2.2 goals per game.
DÉJÀ VU: After winning its second consecutive ACC Championship with a win over Virginia last weekend, Florida State earned a No. 1 seed for the fourth straight season. The Seminoles, who finished as the NCAA runner-up in 2013, may feel a bit of a déjà vu as they host South Alabama in first-round action for the second year in a row. FSU dismantled the Jaguars, 5-0, to start their run to last year’s NCAA title game.
Check out the full schedule and bracket at http://www.ncaa.com/interactive-bracket/soccer-women/d1.
Amy Farnum Patronis covers Women's Division I College Soccer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at email@example.com.