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Road to the NCAA Women’s College Cup: Who are the favorites, and who can make a shocking run?

Photo: Pittsburgh Panthers Athletics.

The field is set for the NCAA Women’s College Cup. The 64-team tournament drew its teams on Monday into four regional sections. The tournament begins on Friday, Nov. 11, and runs through the beginning of December. First round action will wrap up on Sunday, Nov. 13.

The second and third rounds will happen on Nov. 18 and 20. The quarterfinals will take place the Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 25 and 26. Both the semifinals (Dec. 2) and the NCAA College Cup Championship (Dec. 5) will be held at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. Times are to be determined for the semifinals, while the Championship will be held at 6 p.m. ET.

According to the NCAA, 31 teams were granted automatic bids due to regular-season finishes and placement in conference tournaments. The remaining 33 teams were decided on by the NCAA Selection Committee.

There are three first-time competitors in the tournament: New Mexico State (Western Athletic Conference), the University of Nebraska at Omaha (The Summit League) and the University of Pittsburgh (Atlantic Coast Conference). Meanwhile, holding the No. 1 seed in each quadrant of the NCAA College Cup are Florida State (ACC), Notre Dame (ACC), Alabama (Southeastern Conference) and UCLA (Pac-12 Conference).

The full bracket is listed below and on the NCAA’s official website.

Upper Left Quadrant

The first section of the bracket features teams from east of the Mississippi River. Florida State was ranked No. 1 in the top left corner of the bracket, with other rankings dispersed: Saint Louis (No. 2), Arkansas (No. 3), Pittsburgh (No. 4), Georgetown (No. 5), Ohio State (No. 6), Mississippi State (No. 7) and LSU (No. 8).

No. 1 Seed — Florida State: The Seminoles were awarded the top seed after winning the ACC Tournament over North Carolina, 2-1, in Cary, North Carolina. Avery Patterson got the Tar Heels on the board first, but Jenna Nighswonger equalized in the first half, while Jamaican international Jody Brown scored the game-winning goal to kick off the second half. Neighswonger assisted, and she’s been no stranger to doing so this year, totaling 14 assists. Nobody on the team comes close to Nighswonger’s numbers, with Brown following her up with six assists.

Goals aren’t hard to come by for Florida State either — who are, for the first time since 2005, coached by someone else other than Mike Krikorian, with Brian Pensky taking the lead — five players scoring five or more goals. Onyi Echegini, the Nigerian international, leads the way with nine goals.

In goal, two goalkeepers have been splitting time. Mia Justus featured in six games this year for the Seminoles, allowing five goals, totaling four shutouts and making 19 saves. One of Justus’ starts included Florida State’s Oct. 9, 4-0, loss to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, making 12 appearances, is junior Cristina Roque. Roque has four shutouts to her name, along with 48 saves and has allowed 11 goals.

Florida State currently holds a 13-2-3 record. The Seminoles will face off with in-state opponent Florida Gulf Coast, whose record was 12-5-2.

Dark Horse — Pittsburgh (No. 4): The Pittsburgh Panthers have been making history all season — and they have no signs of slowing down. The Panthers hired former Houston Dash and Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum — who also serves as head coach of Nigeria — back in 2018. Since then, Waldrum has recruited, rebuilt and turned the program around. Even without program leading scorer Amanda West for a majority of games (West tore her ACL against Cincinnati on Sept. 4), Pittsburgh has broken the team’s single-season scoring record with 43 goals. Leah Pais leads the way with seven goals. However, three players, including West, have six goals, with the others being Landy Mertz and Sarah Schupansky. The sophomore Schupansky also leads the team in assists with seven, while Anna Bout is behind her with six.

Pitt punched their ticket to the ACC Tournament for the first time in program history after a scoreless draw with Clemson put them ahead. Pitt lost in the first round against Notre Dame — after beating the Fighting Irish earlier in the season, 4-0 — but managed to take Waldrum’s old side to penalty kicks. In goal, Caitlyn Lazzarini has been the stalwart in between the sticks, featuring in all 19 games. Lazzarini made program history with the most career wins (20), and she has allowed 16 goals and made 64 saves. She has eight shutouts to her name.

In addition to making the NCAA Tournament for the first time, Pittsburgh is also hosting at Ambrose Urbanic Field. In the first round, Pittsburgh has Buffalo, who posted a 15-1-4 overall record, on Nov. 12. Should Pittsburgh win, they would host their second round match, as Georgetown is ranked No. 5 and Hofstra is unranked. Pittsburgh could very well meet up with Florida State in the quarterfinals if both sides win their first and second round matches. Pittsburgh held Florida State to a 1-0 goal, and Waldrum praised his side after the performance, saying he was confident in how his side matched up against the Seminoles. Look out for the Panthers in the first two rounds.

Lower Left Quadrant

No. 1 Seed — Notre Dame: Notre Dame started off the season strong and even held on to the first-place spot in the ACC until the very last day of action. After a 2-2 tie with Duke, Notre Dame dropped all the way to the No. 3 position. Instead of having a bye week in the ACC Tournament, the Fighting Irish had to play the Pitt Panthers and won in penalties. In the semifinals, Notre Dame was forced to another penalty kick shootout, this time losing against Florida State.

Notre Dame has two main targets on the attack. Korbin Albert leads the way with 13 goals, while Olivia Wingate follows closely behind with 11. However, they’re not the only players with respectable tallies, as Maddier Mercado scored eight goals and Kiki Van Zanten scored six goals. Wingate leads the team with five assists, while five players have three assists.

Mackenzie Wood is the main goalkeeper, playing 14 games, while Ashley Naylor featured in five and Kaylin Slattery starred in one. Wood has allowed only nine goals and made 35 saves, earning nine shutouts.

Notre Dame head coach Nate Norman said that having home field advantages during the chilly fall months could be a benefit in the national tournament. “Being at home is great and just going through the normal routine,” Norman said. “Plus, having soccer in South Bend in November and forcing southern or western schools to travel here could give us an edge.”

Notre Dame will take on the University of Nebraska at Omaha to kick off the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 12.

Dark Horse — Santa Clara (No. 8): The Santa Clara Broncos are looking to make it back to the NCAA Championship for the first time since winning it in 2020. The Broncos have two titles, with their other victory in 2001. Santa Clara is 10-6-3 overall in the 2022 season, with their best month being October. The Broncos won six matches and tied once against BYU, going unbeaten for the whole month. The strong finish made up for a lackluster start.

Santa Clara is led by head coach Jerry Smith. On the field, the Broncos have scored 30 goals, with a staggering 18 of those goals coming from senior forward Izzy D’Aquila. Colby Barnett leads the way in the assist category with eight. Marlee Nicolos is the main goalkeeper with 15 appearances, 10 goals allowed and 34 saves.

The Broncos have a favorable route on the bracket. In the first round, Santa Clara hosts in-state rival California. Should the Broncos win, they will hit the road against Notre Dame. However, Notre Dame, as mentioned, have struggled to remain consistent this season, and have lost a few games by a wide margin. Notre Dame also piled on goals against Florida State. Should the two sides match up, then all eyes will certainly be tuned in at South Bend.

Upper Right Quadrant

No. 1 Seed — Alabama: The Crimson Tide fly under the radar of all the No. 1 ranked teams. Alabama posed a 19-2-1 record this season overall and went perfect, 10-0, in the SEC. Alabama lost in a nail-biter to South Carolina, 1-0, in the SEC Championship on Nov. 6, with Brianna Behm scoring the game-winner for the Lady Gamecocks. That result gave them a split with South Carolina, as the Crimson Tide beat the Lady Gamecocks on Sept. 15, 2-0.

Riley Parker Mattingly, a graduate student, leads the way in goals with 14, while Ashlynn Serepca scored seven and both Gianna Paul and Reyna Reyes — who plays for the Mexican women’s national team — scored six goals. Felicia Knox has a whopping 16 assists. In goal, McKinley Crone has started and featured in all 22 matches, posing 11 shutouts, 60 saves and only allowing 13 goals.

Alabama is hosting for the first time in NCAA Tournament history. The Crimson Tide are making only their fourth NCAA appearance, with other occurrences in 1998, 2011 and 2017. Alabama will host Jackson State (11-7-1) on Nov. 11. Should Alabama make it through to the next round, they would play either Arizona State or Portland, two teams they did not play this season.

Dark Horse — Texas (No. 7): Texas earned a seventh-seed in the upper right quadrant of the NCAA Tournament after posing a 14-2-4 overall record in 2022. In the Big 12 Championship, Texas earned a convincing 4-0 win over Kansas State and then fell, narrowly, to West Virginia, 1-0, in the semifinals. In the NCAA Tournament, Texas has in-state rival Texas A&M in the first round, at home, on Nov. 11.

Texas hasn’t lost a game since Aug. 25, when the Longhorns faced off with North Carolina in a non-conference tilt. Since then, the team has enjoyed a 16-game unbeaten streak. In Big 12 play, the Longhorns posted seven wins and two draws, with the ties coming against Iowa State (1-1) and Texas Christian University (1-1).

Trinity Byars is the focal point for the attack, scoring 16 goals and adding nine assists for a total of 41 points. However, Lexi Missimo leads the way on assists, notching 14 this season. The Longhorns have Emily Jane Cox with seven goals and Missimo and Jilly Shimkin with six goals apiece. Shimkin also contributes in the other column, posting seven assists.

In goal, Savannah Madden earned 20 starts this season, posting eight shutouts, 69 saves and allowing 16 goals. Texas didn’t have as many conference games as other teams, but put put their defense to the test with opponents like North Carolina, Florida and Oregon. Madden and the defense will need to be sharp and not let their guard down against an Aggies side that Maile Hayes (9 goals).

Lower Right Quadrant

No. 1 Seed — UCLA: UCLA is looking for a trip back to the NCAA College Cup for the first time since 2017, when the Bruins were runner up to in-state rival Stanford. The Bruins won the tournament in 2013 and have four second-place trophies to their name. UCLA was awarded the No. 1 seed after going 17-0-2 overall. UCLA’s two losses came against USC (2-0) and Stanford (1-0).

Sunshine Fontes and Reilyn Turner lead the way on offense with nine goals each. Sofia Cook follows up with six goals and Lexi Wright totaled five so far this season. Assists are spread across the board, with Fontes leading the way with seven, Ally Lemos tallying six assists and three players — Wright, Madelyn Desiano and Quincy McMahon — with five assists each.

Lauren Brzykcy leads all goalkeepers with 19 starts, although Neeku Purcell has substituted in for seven matches, earning 155 minutes of action. Bryzkcy has 49 saves, 12 shutouts and has only allowed nine goals.

UCLA doesn’t have to worry about Stanford or USC just yet, with Stanford on the lower left quadrant and USC in the upper right quadrant. UCLA will host Northern Arizona (8-5-6) in the first round, on Nov. 11. Should they win, the Bruins would play the winner of UCF and North Carolina State.

Dark Horse — Tennessee (No. 6): Tennessee might not have the most dominating record — 11-5-2 — but the Vols are looking to make an early statement in the NCAA Tournament. Slotted in at No. 6 in the regional quadrant, the Vols are entering the tournament after a shaky October where they couldn’t find much consistency. Tennessee posted a 4-1-1 record, and then fell to Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament. The loss to Georgia was a humbling moment, as the Vols beat Georgia just a few weeks before, on Oct. 9.

Joe Kirt, Tennessee head coach, said the break between games has its benefits. “It’s giving us a little break to get back to basics, get some players healthy after a long conference season,” Kirt said. “We are obviously excited about the opportunity to host in the first round against a great opponent.”

Jaida Thomas leads all offensive players with 12 goals on the year, while also posting two assists. Taylor Huff scored five goals, while three players — Mackenzie George, Jordan Fusco and Kameron Simmonds — added four goals each. Huff leads the team in assists with seven, while George added six assists.

In goal, Tennessee’s primary starter is Lindsey Romig, who made 16 appearances, all starts. Ally Zazzara added two starts and made seven appearances, while MacKenzie Haba subbed in for two games. Romig posted 53 saves, allowed 17 goals and earned 10 shutouts.

Tennessee, in their 14th trip to the NCAA Tournament, will host Xavier in the first round on Friday, Nov. 11. Tennessee’s side of the roster is favorable, if they can get past Virginia — who host Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round the same day.

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