The Yale women’s soccer team’s dreams have materialized this week. The Elis nailed down the league trophy last Saturday night, then got the surprise of a lifetime when the NCAA bestowed a first-ever home tourney game upon them two days later.
But if the Bulldogs want to continue their magic deep into the College Cup tournament, they will need to hold on to that stoic focus that has brought them this far.
After all, the winningest team in Connecticut will be playing at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium tonight in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament. And it will be facing the Bulldogs.
Sure, the Central Connecticut Blue Devils (17-3) did not have to start their season in North Carolina or battle Dartmouth or Princeton this year, but they will bring a 12-game winning streak and their fourth straight Northeast Conference title down from New Britain tonight. The Elis (13-3-1, 5-1-1 Ivy) had to battle to subdue the Blue Devils in September, and Yale head coach Rudy Meredith knows that taking the low-profile program a little too lightly will be deadly for his squad.
“I’m very concerned about that,” Meredith said. “I talked to the team today about how I’m worried that Central Connecticut will outwork us. If we don’t match their intensity level, we’re going to be in for a long night.”
The Blue Devils make their fourth straight College Cup appearance after yet another dominant season under sixth-year head coach Mick D’Arcy. The team faltered on consecutive weekends against the Elis and Boston College way back in early September, but took advantage of a very light travel schedule, and have not found themselves on the losing end of a tally since.
Located smack in the middle of New England, the school is no stranger to Ivy League competition. In the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils were absolutely pounded by a Princeton squad looking to make a run toward the Final Four. Yet it was also this relatively unheard-of program that dealt Harvard its first loss of the 2005 season, a 1-0 nailbiter at home from which the highly touted Crimson never really recovered.
The Bulldogs have had an entire week of pleasant weather to prep for tonight’s game, and the focus has been on chemistry and fundamentals.
“We’ve been working a lot on shooting and possession, plus a lot of teamwork stuff,” midfielder Christina Huang ’07 said. “If we win Friday, we know we won’t have a lot of time to prepare for Sunday, so the fitness has been relatively low key.”
Last year, the Elis were stopped short in the first round by Villanova. The Wildcats edged the squad, 1-0, in driving rain at Lourie Love Field in Princeton, N.J. The Yalies, who finished second in the Ancient Eight and had to rely on an at-large berth in 2004, know they will bring a very different mentality to the field this year.
“Last year there was definitely a different mood going into the tournament,” Huang said. “We lost, and it was hard, but not as heartbreaking as it would be this year. We go into the game knowing we should come out with the win.”
Yet, whether articulated or not, another issue threatens to monopolize the minds of a good number of players, coaches, parents and fans alike. From the time the bracket first popped up on ESPN Monday evening, it was hard to ignore the fact that a Duke-Yale rematch at Soccer-Lacrosse would be imminent if both teams could knock off their first-round opponents. After all, Yale would like nothing more than to exact revenge on the team that dealt it a 1-0 loss in its first game of the season.
Meredith said keeping the focus on the Blue Devils from Connecticut has been his utmost priority this week, but it has been a challenge.
“I’ve had to say it three or four times in practice, but it’s all difficult when you have parents asking what time the Duke game is on Sunday,” he said. “I haven’t let our kids mention Duke; we only talk about Central Conn. But it’s impossible to stop all of the talk.”
Ultimately, if the Bulldogs stick to basics and the their usual determined attitude — the pillars of their Championship season — they should be the favorites in tonight’s match. And if all goes well, hype for a Duke matchup will be more than appropriate.
“This year we’ve played Duke, we’ve played UNC,” forward Mimi Macauley ’07 said. “And we know we can compete.”