Gathered around the television in the Saybrook TV Room Monday afternoon, the women of Eli soccer sat on the edge of their seats, eyes glued on ESPNEWS, hoping to hear Yale announced as one of the 64 teams to compete in the NCAA Championship.
Finally, at 4:45 p.m., they heard the magic word, ‘Yale.’ The Elis leapt and shouted, embraced and smiled — their season is not over just yet.
Next Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. in Princeton, N.J., the Bulldogs (13-4, 5-2 Ivy) will square off against the nationally ranked No. 23 Villanova Wildcats (13-5-2), coincidentally the same team the Elis faced in their only other appearance in the tournament two years ago.
In that game, Yale left the field victorious, upsetting then-No. 20 Villanova on penalty kicks, 4-2, after the two teams fought to a scoreless tie through regulation and two overtimes. The Bulldogs lost their second game to Nebraska in regulation by a 1-0 score.
After the announcement yesterday afternoon, when the Eli hollers had finally subsided, head coach Rudy Meredith addressed his team.
“As you guys can see on the TV here, we have a great opportunity,” Meredith said. “We need to get ready. Come to practice tomorrow ready to go. Tomorrow, come focused. Then on Friday, let’s take care of business down in Jersey.”
The Bulldogs secured an at-large bid by the good graces of the selection committee. Of the 64 teams competing, 35 come by way of the selection committee, while the other 29 received automatic bids through winning their respective conferences. No. 12 Princeton (15-2, 7-0) secured the Ivy League’s bid by winning the Ancient Eight.
The Elis enter their second-ever appearance in the tournament riding an eight-game winning streak. The Bulldogs were streaky all season long, opening 5-0, the best start in program history, then dropping their next four games before closing on an eight-game tear.
The four losses all came to teams that made the tournament, including a pair to two of the top 16 seeds — No. 7 seed Princeton and No. 16 seed Santa Clara (14-4-2). The other two losses came at the hands of Harvard (8-6-2, 4-3) and Stanford (12-5-3).
If the Elis advance past Villanova, they will play Sunday against the winner of a contest between Princeton and Central Connecticut State (11-9-1). Yale is familiar with both teams, having lost to Princeton in a 3-0 drubbing Sept. 24 at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium and having beaten Central Connecticut State 2-0 at home Sept. 12.
But first Yale must get past the Wildcats, which, according to Meredith, will be no small task.
“They’re a very hardworking, fit team,” Meredith said. “It’s definitely going to be a battle — I expect nothing less than a war against them. Their coach, Ann Clifton, she’s a very good coach — she always has her team well prepared. They’ve played some stiff competition this year, so I think they’re battle-tested.”
The Wildcats are coming off a bruising loss on penalty kicks to the University of Connecticut (16-6-1) in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament last Friday. Yale beat UConn 2-0 at home Sept. 9.
Clifton said on the Wildcats athletic Web site she looks forward to a competitive game Friday.
“We are very excited to be playing a well-respected team like Yale in the first round,” Clifton said. “We played Yale two years ago in the NCAA Tournament and had an excellent match that eventually went to penalty kicks. We know that Yale is a well-coached team and an outstanding program in a very strong league. We expect to have a great game with them.”
Meredith said he plans to run his team hard in practice today and Wednesday, and then relax more Thursday prior to traveling Friday — game day. He added that the team will pay special attention to penalty kicks this week.
In regular season play, two teams may play through 90 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtimes before concluding in a tie. But in tournament play there are no ties. If the contest is still all square after double overtime, the teams go to penalty kicks, where they alternate in taking five shots each. If still tied, the game moves on to sudden-death penalty shots.
Aside from preparing for the new rules, Meredith had advice for his younger players who have not experienced playoff soccer before.
“First of all, they need to understand that it’s an all-or-nothing type of situation,” Meredith said. “There’s no tomorrow — you’re going out there to win. If you lose, your season’s over. If you lose, you want to walk off the field saying, ‘I gave 100 percent.’ You don’t want to look back and say, ‘If we had played better that day we could have won that game.’”
Midfielder Mia Arakaki ’05 said the Elis must keep in mind what they have practiced.
“I think that everyone gets really nervous and excited,” Arakaki said. “Hopefully that translates into working hard on the field, but not forgetting the fundamentals and what we’ve been working on all season. Sometimes you get scared and excited and lose focus on your game.”
But Arakaki said she is confident the underclassmen will perform well and follow the lead of the players who have been here before.
“We have experienced people who know we can be in the tournament and who know we can win in the tournament,” she said. “I don’t think we’re the underdog in any sense going in against Villanova.”
Arakaki said the team needs to concentrate on Friday’s game, but that everyone on the Yale squad believes this team is capable of going deep into the tournament.
“We don’t want to think too far in advance, but we definitely believe that, given our bracket, they are all teams we are capable of defeating,” Arakaki said. “We’re definitely going to take it one game at a time, but in the back of our heads, we all believe we can make it to the Sweet Sixteen.”