A Trip To The College Cup Is On The Line
Pittsburgh (17-5-1) vs. Florida State (19-0-1) – Friday
Florida State entered the 2023 season with unanswered questions regarding how the Seminoles were going to replace the big play ability of All-American forward Jenna Nighswonger, 19 career goals and 34 career assists, and the playmaking ability and stability of midfielder Clara Robbins, 17 career goals and 25 career assists. The addition of freshman Jordynn Dudley (12g, 8a), the ACC 2023 Freshman of the Year, and transfer Taylor Huff (6g, 13a), a 2023 All-ACC Second Team selection, proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
Senior Ony Echegini (14g, 4a), the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Beata Olsson (6g, 7a) and Jody Brown (5g, 5a), a two-time ACC First Team selection, are among returning players who add punch to a Seminole offense that averages 3.25 goals per game.
Combine that with a Seminole defense anchored by backs senior Lauren Flynn, senior Ran Iwai (0g, 8a) and sophomore Heather Gilchrist and All-American goalkeeper Cristina Rogue that has allowed a total of only 13 goals and add experienced team-oriented players like holding midfielder senior Leilanni Nesbeth (2g, 5a) and the result is a team that is going to be very tough to defeat.
Pittsburgh entered the 2023 season seeking to build on an historic 2022 season during which the Panthers won a program best 14 wins and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Pitts season came to an end last year when they were defeated in the Sweet Sixteen by FSU 3-0 in Tallahassee.
The Panthers have already eclipsed what they accomplished in 2022 with a 17-win season to date and a trip to the Elite Eight. This Pitt team is for real. They have a win over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and most recently showed a ton of grit when they defeated Arkansas 4-3 in Fayetteville and Memphis 3-0 to advance to the Elite Eight.
The Panthers have an equally productive multi-dimensional offense very capably powered by Sarah Schupansky (11g, 13a), Amanda West (11g, 9a), Samiah Phiri (11g, 4a) and crafty playmaker Landy Mertz (4g, 14a). Junior midfielder Ellie Coffield and freshman midfielder Deborah Abiodun (6g, 3a) are among others who add stability and playmaking ability to the Panthers.
Fifth Year senior Ashton Gordon, sophomore Katie Zailski and freshman Olivia Lee anchor the backline along with sophomore goalkeeper Ellie Breech.
The Bottom Line – The Elite Eight will be the third time that these teams have faced each other. FSU topped Pitt 3-2 in Tallahassee during regular season play and 2-0 in Cary during the ACC Tournament. In both contests FSU pulled away in the second half which is not surprising since the Seminoles have outscored opponents 46 to 4 in the second half. They say the third time is the charm. It is true that it is hard to beat any team three times during a season. The pressure that FSU applies, their big game experience, and the fact that this is a deep team has enabled them to wear their opponents down. Chances are pretty good that will be the case in this Elite Eight matchup but if Pitt can play through the pressure an upset is not out of the question.
North Carolina (13-1-8) vs. Brigham Young (19-2-3) – Friday
North Carolina. The Tar Heels always field a very competive team but it is unlikely that there has ever been another season during with the Tar Heels have had eight ties. Clearly that was impacted in large part by the rule change that ties at the end of regulation would stand without overtime during regular season play. However, there are other implications. This is a tough UNC team to top but also one that has been a work in progress in terms of settling into a balance that would produce the big play ability needed to prevail in close contests without leaving themselves vulnerable on defense. The good news if you are among the Tar Heel faithful is that UNC looks to be playing their best soccer of the year at the right time.
Anson Dorrance is as good at gets at developing the skill of his players, sorting out what works best, and merging the individual talents of his players into a unified team. This is a deep Tar Heel team with a lot of experienced players who have earned crucial minutes. In other words, Dorrance does not appear to hesitate taking risks during regular season play if doing so will benefit his team in the long run. Players come to North Caolina to win a national championship. All those factors combine to make UNC a difficult opponent to face during the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels advanced to the national championship game last year but uncharacteristically let the game slip away from them in the closing minutes in a loss to UCLA. North Carolina would like nothing better than to write a different ending to the 2023 season.
Forward Avery Patterson (9g, 2a) and midfielder Ally Sentnor (9g, 6a) are UNC’s top goal scorers but others are capable goal scorers. Senior Sam Meza sets the pace and provides stability in the center of the park. Senior Maycee Bell, freshman Savy King, graduate student Emily Moxley and redshirt sophomore Emerson Elgin anchor the defense along with redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Emmie Allen who now has the composure that comes with a lot of big game experience.
BYU. The Cougars season ended in 2022 with a 3-2 loss in the Sweet Sixteen to North Carolina. This year BYU has the advantage of hosting the Tar Heels. You can bet the farm that a highly partisan packed crowd will be on hand at South Field in Provo.
BYU has a high-powered attack that includes five players who have scored ten or more goals. Brecken Mozingo (13g, 14a), Olivia Wade-Katoa (11g, 8a), Ellie Walbruch (11g, 4a, Allie Fryer (10g, 1a) and Bella Folino (7g, 2a) power a multi-dimensional Cougar attack that has scored a total of 75 goals.
Seniors Laveni Vaka and Kendell Peterson (2g, 12a), and sophomore Izzy Stratton anchor BYU’s defense along with freshman goalkeeper Lynette Hernaez. This is a battle tested and confident Cougar team that has benefited from the rigors of playing in the Big 12 conference and the experience gained from facing a variety of new opponents in different venues.
The Bottom Line – North Carolina faces the inherent challenge that goes with traveling cross country to face BYU on their home turf after spending last weekend in Lubbock, Texas. UNC has played in a lot of big games on the road so while it is a disadvantage it is not likely to impact their play.
Look for this to be a physical game. Intensity and composure will be a key in a game that will likely have momentum shits.
Both teams will likely attack from the get-go. BYU will be more direct while UNC will seek to knock the ball around to find a seam they can exploit. The Tar Heels will have to remain organized in the back to avoid getting beat by a long ball. Look for the play out of restarts, particularly corner kicks, to have an impact on the outcome of the contest.
The first ten minutes of both halves will be important. BYU has come out flat on occasion and allowed an early goal. Jennifer Rockwood will no doubt remind her team of that.
It is a given that both Anson Dorrance and Rockwood will have their teams prepared to play. BYU is a slight favorite but this one could go either way depending upon which team is able to settle in and control the tempo of the contest.
Nebraska (17-3-3) vs. Stanford (18-0-4) – Friday
Number five seeded Nebraska is the unexpected team in the Elite Eight. The Huskers advanced past South Dakota State 5-2, Tennessee 2-1, and UC Irvine 4-0. Nebraska has been able to play all of their games to date in Lincoln due to the fact that Tennessee upset number four seed Xavier and UC Irvine totally changed the dynamics of the tournament when they upset number one seed UCLA in the first round.
The Huskers under veteran head coach John Walker have had a breakthrough season. The trend line has been up at Nebraska as reflected in the fact that they were 2-5-2 in 2020, 7-9-2 in 2021 and 8-7-5 in 2022 when the foundation was set for the success they have had this year.
The 17 wins this year is the Huskers most in a single season since the 2013 campaign and enabled Nebraska to return to the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2016.
This is a team oriented Nebraska side but any discussion of the Huskers has to begin with senior forward Eleanor Dale, the Big Ten Forward of the Year, who leads the country in goals scored with 28. She is joined up top by equally dangerous forward Sarah Weber (15g, 6a) and junior Abbey Schwarz (4g, 9a) who adds an an additional dimension to the offense. Junior midfielder Florence Belzile (3g, 17a) adds playmaking ability in the center of the park while junior Haley Peterson adds stability and sets the pace in the midfield.
Backs junior Jordan Zade, senior Nicola Hauk, sophomore Lauryn Anglim and senior Gwen Lane anchor the defense along with senior Sami Hauk.
Number two seed Stanford is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament with 25 appearances in the last 26 years. The Cardinal have advanced to the Elite Eight 11 times in the past 15 season with the last being the 2019 season in which they won the national championship. Stanford has a nation’s best .409 goals against average having allowed a total of only nine goals while posting 13 clean sheets against a very competitive slate of opponents.
The Cardinal are tough to beat when playing at home where they are unbeaten in 28 consecutive contests in the friendly confines of Cagan Stadium.
Midfielder Jasmine Aikey (11g, 9a), the Pac-12 Midfielder of the Year, forward Andrea Kitahata (9g, 8a), and midfielder Moya Doms (9g, 6a) add punch to a Stanford attack that has scored a total of 49 goals. A rock solid Cardinal defense is anchored by backs Wesley Kennedy, Elsie Evans and Avani Brandt along with Ryan Campbell, the 2022 Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year.
Stanford has not yet allowed a goal in the NCAA Tournament having played their way into the Elite Eight by topping Pepperdine 3-0, South Carolina 3-0 and Mississippi State 1-0.
The Bottom Line – This one is going to come down to whether a high powered Nebraska attack can break the code on what has been a tenacious Stanford defense that has not allowed more than a single goal in any contest this year. This one could end up being a 1-0 contest unless one team has to play from behind early on and leaves themselves vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball. Lapses in play on the defensive side of the ball will be costly in this one. The Cardinal are not the type of team that you want to have to chase from behind. Nebraska is playing with house money so to speak since they have advanced further than anticipated. Stanford is the prohibitive favorite but the momentum could shift to the Huskers if they are able to get on the board early.
Picture from Nebraska Athletics