Monday, November 30, 2009

Same Old, Same Old

The NCAA women's soccer Final Four will be contested this weekend at Texas A&M, and it's not hard to guess who will be participating.

North Carolina? Check.

UCLA? Check.

Notre Dame? Check.

Those three teams seem to be a given in any women's soccer Final Four (real name: the College Cup, but TigerBlog doesn't like that term). UCLA's appearance this weekend will be its seventh straight, while Notre Dame will be there for the fourth straight time and seventh time in 11 years. North Carolina is only there for the third straight time, though the Tar Heels will be making their 25th semifinal appearance and will be chasing their 20th championship.

The fourth team is actually the top-ranked team in the country, Stanford, who is unbeaten and untied. The Cardinal are making their second-straight appearance in the Final Four, which means that the four teams who meet in College Station this weekend will be the same four who came together a year ago in Cary, N.C., when Carolina defeated UCLA and Notre Dame defeated Stanford in the semis before Carolina defeated Notre Dame in the final.

Clearly, it's a pretty elite group that reaches the Final Four in any sport, but in women's soccer, it's practically a closed club.

There have been 40 Final Four berths in women's soccer this decade, and those 40 spots were taken by just 12 teams, out of more than 300 who play the sport on the Division I level. One of those 12 was Princeton.

It's been five years since Princeton made its magical run to the Final Four, crashing the party along with UCLA, Notre Dame and Santa Clara. Princeton sprinted to a 15-2 regular season in 2004, earning the No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers then defeated Central Connecticut 5-0, Villanova 1-0 in double overtime (on Maura Gallagher's goal off a corner kick), Boston College 2-0 (on two Emily Behncke goals) and then Washington 3-1 (second half goals by Esmeralda Negron and Kristina Fontanez) to advance to the Final Four. UCLA then defeated Princeton 2-0.

TigerBlog was at the Princeton men's opening round NCAA soccer game against Bucknell, which was the first postseason game played on Myslik Field at Roberts Stadium. Watching the rain fall and seeing how the field held the water and seeing the fans in the stands with access to a real concession stand and real bathrooms, TigerBlog couldn't help but think back to Lourie-Love Field, which used to stand on the same spot and was the site for all four of Princeton's 2004 NCAA women's games.

Lourie-Love had none of the amenities that Roberts Stadium has, and to be honest, Princeton is decidedly lucky to have the new stadium. In many ways, it's a direct result of the women's team's 2004 run.

Still, there was something charming about the rickety old wooden stands at Lourie-Love, stands that were jammed with more than 2,500 fans for the quarterfinal win over Washington.

TigerBlog has served as the sports information contact for football, men's basketball, men's lacrosse, men's and women's squash, sprint football, wrestling, men's and women's water polo and men's and women's rowing during his time here at HQ. He also spent three seasons as the women's soccer contact, including the 2004 Final Four run.

At the time, TB had no real context of the historic nature of what Princeton was accomplishing. Sure, he knew it was the first - and still only - women's soccer Final Four appearance by an Ivy League school, and clearly Princeton was treading in unchartered waters in terms of national rankings.

Now, looking back five years ago this week to Princeton's appearance in the Final Four, it's apparent that what the Tigers were able to accomplish then was extraordinary.

Getting to the Final Four in women's soccer? A handful of teams have done it, including the group that seems to do it every year. More than 300 never have and probably never will. Only 12 have done it this decade, including a history-making team from Princeton that joined the club five years ago.

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