After two semifinal games between four No. 1 seeds and 197 minutes of College Cup soccer, the national championship stage is final set. North Carolina, the winningest program in women's college soccer history, will face ACC champion Florida State at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
Here's what we learned about these two teams in their semifinal games on Friday night.
The ACC is the nation's most dominant soccer conference this year.
Ten ACC teams qualified for the NCAA tournament this year, an NCAA record. The semifinal games Friday night proved that not only is this conference deep, but it also boasts the two best teams in the country.
Florida State took down the Tar Heels on Nov. 4 in the conference tournament, but as these players know, past performance only matters so much come Sunday's national title match.
"I think it's great that we are playing a team that we have played before and also a team that we have lost to before because [they’ve] presented problems to us that we need to fix, and we've gone back and we've worked on it,” North Carolina captain Taylor Otto said. “We want to play them again, and we want to show that we've grown."
The Seminoles played dominant soccer against defending national champion Stanford in Friday's semifinal, controlling the pace of play nearly the entire game. FSU will now pose a challenge to Otto and the Tar Heels.
North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance said he and Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian joked about this ACC rematch, hoping it would happen.
"We texted back and forth, and we agreed to meet in the final,” Dorrance said.
And now they will. The two ACC powerhouses, head to head, at WakeMed. Again.
Never doubt Julia Ashley.
The Tar Heels' senior has scored at least one point in every NCAA tournament game, and she's been the kind of leader Dorrance raves about. Speaking at the postgame press conference, Ashley said she expects each of her teammates to be able to find points in clutch situations, but Friday night she happened to be the one to deliver.
"Honestly I really want, like I want this so much, and my whole team does too, and I'm just trying to get us there," Ashley said. "Right before we went to the second overtime, I said to my team, 'Someone is going to finish this off for us in the next 10 minutes, who's it going to be?' I was that player today, but I think it could be anyone on our team."
The world's most popular game comes to Cary with an international flair.
Florida State’s seven international players make the Seminoles the most diverse team in the College Cup. Team point leader and Venezuelan native Deyna Castellanos said the integration of international styles on the field has helped her develop as a player and as a leader for the Seminoles.
"I wish I could play like Yujie [Zhao] plays, or I wish I could play the way Natalia [Kuikka] plays,” Castellanos said. “Those different styles that we have bring something so special to the collective team and play that we have right now."
Dorrance said he has also made an effort to recruit international kids to compete with Stanford, Florida State, Penn State and other top teams around the country. These "low maintenance" international athletes bring a curiosity and coachability to a team and Dorrance said they’ve been critical in elevating the NCAA soccer game across the board. He’ll see this firsthand again tomorrow.
North Carolina will find out how much it has left in its tank after Friday's marathon.
The Tar Heels have played more minutes than any other school in the College Cup, and they will enter Sunday's championship game against the Seminoles fresh off a 107-minute battle with the fast-paced Hoyas.
“I told Mark, I was joking with him earlier at the NCAA meeting that I wanted to ask all of his kids to do 30 or 40 sprints because the pace of their game was mud slow compared to ours, so of course, I'm worried about our legs. I wanted us to be even,” Dorrance said.
North Carolina has shown its perseverance and endurance previously in this tournament, also taking UCLA to penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, but Dorrance expressed concern over how Friday night's game may have taken on his players.
“Do we have enough left in the tank? Obviously, overtime isn't a positive way to spend a game on Friday when you have to play on Sunday. So, do we have anything left in the tank?" Dorrance said. "Those are the questions that are sort of up in the air going into Sunday."
Neither team took their practice time Saturday, and North Carolina's Ashley said it will be doing a lot of resting leading up to Florida State.
"We have worn ourselves out, you're going to, but now we just need to take care of our bodies and do the right things so we are prepared for Sunday," Ashley said.
The College Cup forces freshmen to play like veterans.
Florida State started three freshmen against the Cardinal Friday night, with two of them, Jaelin Howell and Kirsten Pavlikso playing a full 90 minutes. Yujie recorded 61 minutes.
"All the freshmen we have, Jaelin, Pav, Yujie, they're freshmen in college, but they are experienced players. Yujie is with the Chinese national team, Jaelin is with the United States national team, and Pav, she's amazing. They adapted to the group very well, and they work hard to play with us and to be familiar with the game that we have,” Castellanos said.
Krikorian credits his young players for their ability to assimilate to their team culture, and he has had no hesitation starting them at this crucial point in the postseason.
The big test is still ahead for each of the Seminoles, but they’ve beaten North Carolina once, and now Kirkorian is hoping they can do it again.