BOCA RATON, Fla. -- On a lovely, breezy Thursday in south Florida, the four teams competing in this weekend’s Division I women’s soccer championship practiced, chatted with media then began assuming game faces.
Friday’s two national semifinals -- played at Florida Atlantic University Stadium on the FAU campus in Boca Raton -- feature Virginia and Texas A&M at 5 p.m. ET, followed by Florida State and Stanford at 7:30 p.m. Winners advance to Sunday’s 1 p.m. title match.
Of the four semifinalists, only Stanford (20-1-3) has won a national title. Texas A&M (22-2-2) is appearing in its first final four. Virginia (22-2) and FSU (22-1-1) have been there, done that, but haven’t hoisted a College Cup.Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe doesn’t think having one big trophy in the Cardinal’s case will make much difference.
“I’m not a big believer in that,” he said Thursday, on the eve of the latest quest. “I think it comes down to this team. We’ve got to stay focused and have that drive and desire and keep our composure and play good soccer and get a good result. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, they’re all good teams. It’s about who can execute on the field and make things happen on the day.”
Senior forward Chioma Ubogagu now knows what that means. A freshmen on Stanford’s undefeated 2011 national championship team, she didn’t experience losing a game until her sophomore season. A national semifinal loss to eventual champion North Carolina in 2012 and a third-round NCAA tournament loss last year hammered the point home.
“Paul always said that we didn’t see all the work prior to that,” Ubogagu said of pre-2011 NCAA tournament outcomes. “The winter and spring offseason and even teams before that. The mentality of that time is that they were sick of losing. They were sick of getting that close and not holding the national championship trophy at the end. I think all of those things contributed to that and that’s stuff I didn’t really see.
“So sophomore year, when we lost to UNC, and junior year, when we lost in the sweet 16, that’s when we all finally felt what he was talking about, and I think that was huge as to why we are here now.”
FSU is in the national semifinals for the fourth consecutive year and eighth time in program history. The Seminoles are the reigning runner-ups, after losing to UCLA in last year’s national-title game. All that experience helps, but any tipping point comes on the field.
“If we’re good enough, we’re going to win,” FSU head coach Mark Krikorian said. “In the past, we haven’t been good enough. We have a new collection of players, the opponents’ have a new collection of players. It’s two different teams. If we’re good enough on Friday, we’ll win. If we’re good enough on Sunday, we’ll win. What’s gone on in the past will only serve as a positive for us. All of us are looking at this as a chance to continue our season.”Virginia’s Cavaliers are playing in their third College Cup. Their first trip came in 1991. Their second trip came last season, when UCLA dispatched them via penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw in one national semifinal match.
“I think there is just more familiarity with how the whole tournament works,” Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said of the privilege of playing on the final week of the season. “The demands and those kind of things. It is about managing that. It is a tough time for all the teams. Most are in exams or getting close to exams, so you have to compartmentalize what you are doing. I certainly think that it helps to have had last year for our players.”
Still, comfort zones mean little without accomplishment.
“The difference between being a champion at this level and coming in second is really small,” FSU’s Krikorian said. “It’s all about details. If our effort, focus, concentration and quality is good enough and we take care of the details, I think the opportunity is there to be successful. Quite honestly, if we don’t, then we don’t deserve to win. We all recognize that it’s going to come down to special moments and special players taking advantage of those moments, and if we do it properly, then we’ll play again on Sunday.”
Although Texas A&M is playing in its first national semifinal, the Aggies aren’t strangers on the scene. They’ve hosted three previous College Cups and are playing in their 20th consecutive NCAA tournament.
“This is a team that is accustomed to winning,” head coach G Guerrieri said of his senior-laden squad. “They have won the SEC regular-season championship, the SEC tournament championship this year. They did the same feat last year. Texas A&M has been in 20 tournament championships in a row. We have been to 13 Sweet 16 or later. We have been knocking on the door for quite a while.”