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UCLA, Florida State each seek first NCAA title in final

Sarah Killion hopes to lead UCLA to their first-ever NCAA title on Sunday against Florida State. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

CARY, N.C. — And then there were two. Following Friday night’s dramatic fixtures, the NCAA field is down to a pair of powerhouse programs: No. 3 Florida State and No. 2 UCLA.

The two schools ooze postseason pedigree; UCLA has nine College Cup appearances on their resume and Florida State seven, but neither has won an NCAA Championship. That will change on Sunday as one of these storied teams will finally earn the ultimate reward after years of Final Four heartbreak.

College Cup 2005’s semifinal is the only time they have met previously and it ended in a 4-0 win for the Bruins. First-year UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell is no stranger to the Florida State program, though. As head coach at UCF in Orlando for 14 years, her team played the in-state rival Seminoles a dozen times during her tenure, including seven matches against Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian. Bruins’ goalkeeper coach Aline Reis was in net on Cromwell’s squad for three of those games as well, facing a few of the same FSU players that will take to the field on Sunday.

Also to their benefit, UCLA have played four other ACC sides this season. They met three of those opponents during a brutal four-game away stretch in their pre-conference schedule, which included matches against Notre Dame, Duke and North Carolina, ranked seventh, twelfth and first at the time. Cromwell credits this baptism by fire, including a tough loss to UNC, with helping her team find their weaknesses early while anticipating a deep tournament stretch.

“BJ (Snow, previous UCLA coach) was a genius in setting up the schedule. He knew the quality of this team and what they needed to be prepared for a great postseason run,” Cromwell said. “Going to Notre Dame’s tournament and coming to North Carolina for Duke’s tournament was huge for our preparation. We were exposed with some things that we needed to be exposed. Obviously, our one loss this season was to UNC, and I feel that we showed that we redeemed ourselves and came back and fought a great game (in last weekend’s quarterfinal win against the Tar Heels). You have to play the best teams in the country to get better.”

[SEMIFINAL RECAPS: FSU tops Virginia Tech in OT |  UCLA bests No. 1 Virginia in PK shootout]

In her first year at the helm of one of the country’s most prestigious soccer programs, Cromwell inherited a number of high-caliber players. Top talent in name, though, doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the pitch and one of her first priorities as the season began was figuring out how the pieces would best fit together to facilitate a successful year.

Sam Mewis (right) is one piece of the three-headed monster that is UCLA's midfield. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

One sticking point she found was an embarrassment of riches in the midfield. Senior Jenna Richmond and juniors Sarah Killion and Samantha Mewis all play for the current U.S. U-23 national team. All are of the highest quality and too good to leave any one out of the starting lineup. It meant Cromwell would have to try a five-player midfield to accommodate the trio, a system with which she wasn’t completely familiar.

“I was always kind of against two holding mids until last year at UCF when we played the 4-2-3-1,” Cromwell said. “That was from input of our assistant coaches. I have never been a coach that is married to one system; I like to see how the players fit the system best and what system that is. With Jenna, Sarah and Sam, you have to have three midfielders centrally. It just fits our team to have the two holding mids.”

Richmond and Killion typically play the defensive midfielder parts, but Cromwell says their experience with different formations on a variety of teams, including the national team, allows the teammates to transition into other roles as well. It’s part of an adaptability trait many of her players display, allowing the coach’s structure to fluctuate when the game dictates.

UCLA are coming off a huge victory with their penalty kick triumph in the semifinal over No. 1 Virginia and a great deal of that success, Cromwell said, was due to her team’s flexibility in response to pressure. She cited both Killion’s and left-footed utility player Lauren Kaskie’s ability to adapt to different positions as key in throwing Virginia off their game.

“In the first half, Sarah was popping out wide, almost as a left back at times, to let Caprice (Dydasco, left back) release and get into the attack and that’s when we started to get more of the ball and Lauren has that ability to get composure, to spin out of something, to change the point, and use her left foot in different ways,” Cromwell said. “So if they’re not used to defending a lefty in the midfield, we can get different angles for some through-balls and change the point of attack.”

The versatility of the players also allowed right back and goal-scorer Ally Courtnall to play forward into the midfield when the Bruins needed an equalizer in the last ten minutes of regulation.

“The great thing about our formation that we play, we call it a 4-2-3-1 and it can look like three up top,” Cromwell said. “We generally don’t play three high all the time and just sit there in the three-front… sometimes it looks like a two-front, sometimes it looks like an offset 4-4-2. That’s why we like the fluid motion of our front-runners in that formation. But we’ve also played a 3-5-2, you saw us go to that when we needed a goal (against Virginia). We’ve worked on almost every formation you can think of… you can change it in-game and it won’t rattle them at all.”

Coach Krikorian’s Seminoles play a possession-oriented 4-2-3-1 formation as well, but he admitted his Seminoles had difficulties through the midfield on Friday in their Final Four matchup against Virginia Tech, a self-described blue-collar team that took Florida State out of their comfort zone through gritty, combative play. In the championship match, they’ll be up against one of the best midfields in the country and the coach hopes his team will be able to learn from Friday’s close call.

Jamia Fields scored twice to lift FSU past Virginia Tech in Friday's semifinal. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

“One of the things that we speak about a lot and pride ourselves on is patience and if, in a game, we allow the tempo of the game to be too high then it becomes a game of transition, which is what you saw (Friday) night, and then it just comes down to athletic quality a lot of times,” Krikorian said. “I think that we’re going to have to make sure with our back line and with Kelsey (Wys, goalkeeper) and, of course, with the midfield as well, that we’re a little bit more patient in choosing what it is that we’re running into the attack. There were many, many, many situations (Friday) night where we got the ball wide and we had the choice to either penetrate on the dribble or step on the ball, change the point of attack and slow the tempo down. I think it happened about 30 times and probably 28 times, we chose the first one: We’re going to just keep running at them and try to challenge them physically. I think that in the game (Sunday), my hope is that we’re going to be able to vary our attack a little bit and sometimes use the athletic quality to run at their back line and put them under that pressure, but also step on the ball and maybe slow the game a little bit and dictate the tempo a little more, which is something that we have done over the course of the season very well.”

Defensively, two of the best back lines in the country will be on display in the final. Through 25 games, UCLA have posted shutouts in 17 and have only allowed eight goals all season for an NCAA best .308 goals-against average. Virginia’s 73rd minute score on Friday was the first they’ve allowed this postseason. Florida State, meanwhile, have 15 clean sheets to their name in 27 games and their .536 GAA ranks 11th in the nation. The two goals they allowed in Friday’s semifinal marked only the second time this year an opponent has managed to get more than one goal past the Seminoles.

The heart of any team’s defensive strength lies in their center backs and both of Sunday’s finalists boast 2013 First Team All-Americans and MAC Hermann semifinalists in junior Abby Dahlkemper for UCLA and senior Kassey Kallman for Florida State.

“You look at Abby’s game, she’s just the full package,” Cromwell said of the one half of her center back duo. “She has the speed, she’s strong, she’s tall, she can shut down anybody 1-v-1 and I know, as a team, we just feel better with her in the game. That’s the reason why I think we have the number one defense in the country.”

Dahlkemper’s central-defensive partnership with junior Megan Oyster didn’t develop from the outset, though. Cromwell initially planned on pairing Dahlkemper with freshman Gabbi Miranda. The coach says Oyster proved herself early on, though, and Cromwell tried her out in the third game of the season, forcing Miranda, yet another of the Bruins’ U.S. youth national teamers, to the bench.

“It’s a big testament to Megan and what she’s done; she earned her way into our starting role throughout her training sessions. Her first start was the Notre Dame game and she just stepped up big. She and Abby just fit well together. They communicate, they’re both so good in the air, they read off each other in the step-and-covering aspect.”

Kallman and junior Kristin Grubka for Florida State are just as solid defensively, having anchored the back line over the past two seasons. They’re both dominant in the air as well, but not just in their own penalty box: Kallman and Grubka have each scored twice this postseason with all four goals coming off headers. The latter led her team back on Friday, drawing level just before the end of the first half against Virginia Tech.

Senior goalkeeper Kelsey Wys reflected on the confidence she has in her center-back pair the day after their dramatic comeback:

“After (Friday) night we were sitting at dinner and I looked at them and I was like… I couldn’t say what I wanted to say because I have so much respect for playing with them. Just playing with Kassey Kallman and Grubka and after the first goal got scored on us, I knew that Grubka had my back and she showed that she did: She went and she scored a great goal. Playing behind all of them is an honor.”

On Sunday, Kallman will be the seventh player Killion and Mewis have met on the road to the College Cup that are particularly special to the pair. Their reunion with the FSU defender, along with Morgan Brian of Virginia, Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai and Bryane Heaberlin of North Carolina, and Chioma Ubogagu and Stephanie Amack of Stanford has given them a chance in the tournament to lock horns with a third of their former teammates that, together, won the U-20 World Cup in 2012. The Bruin midfielders also eliminated their coach on that team from the postseason when they knocked off Virginia on Friday.

Killion says she relishes the opportunities to catch up with the players from that special group along the way as they all strive for another piece of hardware.

“It’s weird to see them, but it’s exciting to see them and play against them. I think we all kind of know a little of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but we’ve all changed a ton since a year ago. It’s exciting, and it’s actually really nice to see everybody and play against everybody, but everybody’s so competitive and we all feel like we want to win this thing and we obviously all know how competitive each other are from being on that team.”

Competitive is exactly what Sunday’s final at WakeMed Soccer Park should be, as one of these storied programs finally claims its first national title.

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