TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As great as Alabama Crimson Tide soccer has been this season, it’s still in unchartered waters.
On Friday, the Southeastern conference regular-season champions will play the first Elite Eight match in program history after winning its first Sweet 16 match in program history. Both events occurred with Alabama being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, another first in program history.
Forward Riley Mattingly Parker (17 goals), midfielder Felicia Knox (20 assists) and goalkeeper McKinley Crone (10 shutouts) already have their names etched throughout the Alabama soccer record book. The Crimson Tide almost swept the SEC individual awards, with Wes Hart also named the league’s coach of the year.
Conquering the SEC was one thing. Now the task turns to essentially doing the same thing against the sport’s long-established premier league, the Athletic Coast Conference.
It still has five teams still alive in the tournament, all vying for spots in the College Cup.
Moreover, they’re all established among the elite, having experienced numerous postseason runs. That includes the next team in Alabama’s way, Duke, with the quarterfinal set to be played Friday at 6 pm
The Blue Devils come into Tuscaloosa as the No. 2 seed in the region, right under Alabama, and with a 15-4-3 record. It’s also Duke’s third straight year in the Elite Eight and the sixth time in the last eight years.
The other quarterfinals will be played Saturday, with Arkansas at Florida State, North Carolina at Notre Dame, and Virginia at UCLA.
It was at Florida State where Hart spent two seasons (2013-2014) as an assistant coach, and helped lead the Seminoles’ first national championship season in 2014.
“A little bit,” Hart said when asked if he’d thought about the possibility of playing Florida State in the College Cup. “But like I said, all year long we focused on one game at a time. I hadn’t even watched any of Duke until we won our last game. So all of our focus is on Duke and how we’re gonna beat Duke Hopefully, if we get by Duke, then we can start shifting focus to that.”
Unlike the previous opponents’ play style, Hart looks forward to competing against a program that will be more aggressive.
“They’re not gonna just sit back and absorb pressure,” he said. “They’re a team that’s gonna come out and play.”
Duke has Michelle Cooper, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year who is tied with Parker with 17 goals on the season for fifth in the nation.
She’s by far biggest scoring threat Alabama has faced so far in the tournament.
“Michelle Cooper is going to be a handful,” defender Gessica Skorka said. “I trust our defense and I know that we’re going to give her a run for her money.”
if anything, Alabama might be fortunate that Duke is the ACC team it’ll face at this stage of the tournament. Notre Dame and Florida State are also No. 1 seeds, and North Carolina tied for the regular-season title.
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That’s not a slight to a Duke program that was a national runner-up in 2011 and 2015; rather, it’s more of testament to how dominating other ACC programs have been since women’s soccer became an official Division I sport in 1982.
Similar to how college football runs through the SEC, women’s soccer runs through the ACC. Of the last 40 College Cups, the ACC has only missed out one-time, including 16 consecutive appearances. Also the conference has four consecutive appearances in the national championship, highlighted by two titles from Florida State in 2018 and 2021.
It’s a plethora of records and accomplishments, but the point is in addition to the test Alabama has to face here during this final game at home, it’ll potentially only play ACC teams the rest of the way.
- Florida State, the top-overall seed of the tournament, has made its fifth straight Elite Eight.
- No. 1-seeded Notre Dame is on a 12-game winning streak and hasn’t given up a goal in the tournament.
- No. 2-seeded North Carolina is making its 16th trip to the Elite Eight since 2001. The Tar Heels also have 21 of the 27 national titles among ACC schools.
- No. 3-seeded Virginia is looking to make its second College Cup in three seasons.
It’s a tall order for Alabama to run the gauntlet of women’s soccer, but Parker and the squad do have some momentum:
The last time Alabama played an ACC opponent, it defeated Clemson 3-0
The last time the Crimson Tide faced an ACC team in the NCAA tournament, it won (Clemson 1-0 in 2021).
The last time Alabama lost to an ACC team, it was a 1-0 loss to Miami early in the season.
Are those two teams the caliber of Florida State and North Carolina? No, and it doesn’t wipe away the 4-0 loss to the Seminoles last season.
But recent success against arguably the best conference in women’s soccer, combined with a team performing at a historic level, counts for something. And if there is a team to go on such a run, it’s the 2022 edition of Alabama soccer.
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