Sandwiched between two stretches so arduous that head coach Rudy Meredith said he “felt like he had joined the ACC,” this past week’s schedule brought opponents to the women’s soccer squad that all had one thing in common: Each had a home field a stone’s throw away from the Elm City.
The Elis have put on quite a show since returning from North Carolina last week, dispatching the Hartford Hawks, Central Connecticut State Blue Devils and Quinnipiac Bobcats with relative ease. This early-season success within the Nutmeg State begs the forbidden question: Could the Bulldogs be the best team in the state this year?
Dave Clarke, head coach at Quinnipiac, did not directly answer this question, but of the seven Division I teams in Connecticut, he says the top two are pretty clear-cut.
“Of the seven in this state, Yale and UConn are ahead of the other five,” Clarke said. “They are the two national-level programs — and will always be so. We might close in in a year-in-year-out basis, but only UConn and Yale can sustain themselves nationally.”
Without doubt, the Elis are the newcomers of the pair, a team that was kicking around the basement of the Ivy League only a decade or so ago.
Coaches around the state agree that Meredith’s tenure with the program beginning in 1996 has had no small part in sparking the improvement.
“The program is very well-respected. The games are played the right way. The team carries themselves the right way,” Clarke said. “Rudy’s slowly developing them into a consistent national power.”
Meredith said that the upswing over the past decade has been remarkable.
“Eleven years ago we played Stanford at a tournament and lost 9-0,” he said. “Last year, we lost 1-0, and that tells us how far we have come. Ten years ago, UConn and Hartford were both beating us by four or five goals.”
The hierarchy in Connecticut has shuffled around a bit since the mid-’90s, with Hartford playing a close second fiddle to the powerhouse in Storrs back then. While Hartford still plays its share of top-ranked teams, including a hard-fought 1-0 loss to the Bulldogs Sep. 9, the Hawks have slid considerably.
“Ten years ago, Hartford was a national power, and that’s no longer the case,” Clarke said. “Since then it’s been a slow downward slope. Ten years ago they were playing against UNC. Once [former coach] Mark Krikorian left for the WUSA, the team slowly lost its national luster.”
Despite the recent surge in New Haven, Hartford head coach John Natale still believes that Yale has a long way to go to contend for top billing in the state against the Huskies.
“Without question, you have UConn as the best in Connecticut,” he said. “Between the rest of the Connecticut schools, we have our good years. But I can’t remember when the Huskies haven’t been on top not just in the state, but overall.”
Meredith was not about to claim that UConn was anything but number one in Connecticut.
“Clearly, UConn is still the best program in the state. They’ve been in the Final Four before,” Meredith said. “I don’t think that any other team in the state can claim that.”
The Bulldogs will not get a chance to test their skills against the Huskies this season, but their 2-0 triumph over then-No. 17 UConn last Sept. 10 was another landmark in pulling closer to state preeminence. Perhaps the Elis still stand as number two in the state, but they may not have to stay there for long.
“With the pulling power of an Ivy League school, they’ll never be far off from being the number-one team,” Clarke said. “They could prove this year to be the number one team in the state. When Yale beats UConn, beats Princeton, consistently goes far into the tournament … these things will bring them closer to being on top.”
The Bulldogs will get their chance to build some serious credentials this weekend, when they head to the D.C. area to take on powerful George Mason and Maryland squads.
“Both teams are going to be really tough,” Meredith said. “We begin the second part of my ACC schedule.”
But neither UConn nor George Mason nor Maryland can distract Meredith and his squad from the ultimate goal of an Ivy League title.
“This tough schedule is all for a reason – this is all for the Princeton game,” he said. “We will finalize what we’re going to do against Princeton, and hopefully we’ll be well-prepped.”