On this same Monday evening last year, all the women’s soccer team had hoped for as they huddled around the big screen in the Branford TV room was a chance to play anywhere in the NCAA Tournament.
After securing the Ivy League title Saturday, the Elis knew they were guaranteed a spot in this year’s competition. But the Bulldogs received a surprise nonetheless when they found out that their first game — and their second, should they make it that far — would be played in their very own Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium.
In the opening round of the 64-team 2005 NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament, the Bulldogs (13-3-1, 5-1-1 Ivy) will welcome Central Connecticut (17-3) to New Haven Friday night. The Elis have not played a home game in either of their two previous tournament appearances. Last year, the Bulldogs bowed out in the first round at Villanova. Yale head coach Rudy Meredith, who had predicted a matchup at Boston College or the University of Connecticut before the 5 p.m. announcement, was thrilled with this milestone for the Yale soccer program.
“This is unbelievable to get the NCAAs at home,” he said. “This is a dream come true for the kids, for their families, and for the school.”
In an unexpected but not unconventional decision, national powerhouse No. 12 Duke and Fairfield were picked to round out the initial bracket of four playing Friday at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium. Although Duke has a higher NSCAA ranking than the home-field Elis, geographical proximity can be taken into consideration when brackets are drawn and venues are chosen.
Captain Eleni Benson ’06 said she was concerned before the announcement that her team’s placement in the draw could have been affected by the Elis’ late-season stumbles.
“We had been told [our loss at] Columbia could have hurt us coming in to today,” she said.
A huge cheer went up in the third-floor classroom of Ray Tompkins House when the bracket was unveiled on a live ESPNews telecast. Many team members said the unprecedented fan support has been essential to this year’s perfect home record, and were thrilled with the chance to extend their home season by another week.
“I’m still very surprised, but really enthusiastic about this,” goalkeeper Chloe Beizer ’07 said. “We have had such great fan support this year. It’s going to make such a difference to be at home. We don’t have to travel, we won’t be in a foreign locker room, we won’t have to play on a foreign field.”
The Bulldogs also have the advantage of having faced all three teams in their bracket already this season. Central Connecticut fell to the Elis 2-0 on a pair of Crysti Howser ’09 goals at the Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium on Sept. 11. The Blue Devils went on a tear after falling in New Haven, winning 13 of their last 14 games. Yale also faced Fairfield Sept. 27, eking past the Stags 1-0 on the road.
But the conversation following the announcement concerned a rematch with a different Blue Devils team. In the Elis’ first game of the season, Duke edged out the Bulldogs 1-0 at the Nike Carolina Classic Sept. 2. If both Duke and Yale are fortunate enough to outmuscle their first round opponents, the stage will be set for a Sunday battle, only the second time the two teams have ever met.
Despite the early loss, the Bulldogs were enthusiastic about how close they stuck with a premier soccer program, and they think they have improved immensely since then.
“I think we matched up well at the beginning of the season,” goalie Susan Starr ’08 said. “But we’ve been talking since that night about how we wished we had been able to play Duke later in the season.”
The winner that emerges from Yale’s foursome will face the victor of a bracket that contains No. 5 Notre Dame, Valparaiso, Michigan State and Bowling Green.