Destination Known: UNCG packs for Charlottesville
The Spartans were hoping to be chosen to host the first round of the NCAA women's soccer tournament, but as anybody not assigned to play in Chapel Hill knows, the draw could have been worse.
Riding the nation's second-longest winning streak, UNCG was sent on the road but was liberated from the universally feared assignment of facing the Tar Heels on their home turf. Instead, the Spartans, 19-1-1 and winners of 16 straight including the Southern Conference tournament, were dispatched to Charlottesville, Va., where they will meet South Carolina (14-5-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. If they defeat the Gamecocks, they will probably face a task with which they are familiar: a homestanding foe from the ACC. Virginia, fourth in the RPI as of last week, looms as the likely second-round opponent.
"You never know what to expect," coach Eddie Radwanski said after a selection-watching party at Natty Greene's Brewing Company in downtown Greensboro. "On the high end, you'd love to host. I'd like to think we were in the discussion with that. But it's also good that we're not down the road in Chapel Hill. You get in this NCAA tournament and you're going to play good teams. It's something different than what we've done before, so that's exciting."
The Spartans' ninth NCAA tourney appearance breaks a two-year absence from the field. UNCG has more wins than anybody in the 64-team bracket, and only Stanford (18-0-2), which has won 17 straight, has a better winning percentage than the Spartans boast.
"You know, it's funny," goalkeeper Kelsey Kearney said. "It's been very exciting, but we were talking on the bus yesterday, and a lot of the girls were like, 'Man, that one loss. That one loss.' We're not settling at all. We've got high expectations for this team and I think that's been a huge part of our success. We just refuse to settle."
But there are some things the Spartans can't control, and one of them is the strength of their neighbors.
Eleven of the top 15 teams in the most recent RPI, which is dated Nov. 2, were in the Eastern time zone. Ultimately, nine of the 16 schools chosen to host the first two rounds were located east of Chicago. Because of cost-containment mandates, the selection committee can't accommodate everybody in a particular region, and UNCG's RPI of 27, while outstanding, wasn't quite enough to sway the panel to pick Greensboro over a bid from No. 35 Minnesota. Every other host was in the top 25.
"The big challenge is always because we're not in a BCS conference," Radwanski said. "Although a number of programs are familiar with our team, some are naïve to us. And that's OK. We've just got to keep earning our right."
So the Spartans will embrace the challenge. The Gamecocks, 26th in the most recent RPI, advanced to the SEC championship game by twice surviving penalty kicks. They dropped a 1-0 decision to Florida in the final on an own goal.
If the Spartans get past South Carolina, the draw is set up to pair them with Virginia. Like almost everybody else with a track record, UNCG is 1-6 in NCAA tourney games on the opponent's home field. That includes defeats in Chapel Hill in 2001, 2003 and 2007, one at Virginia (2000) and another at Clemson (1997).
But that's a topic for another day. The Spartans have excelled by ignoring presumptions and accepting situations as they become imminent.
"I don't see why we would (look ahead.) We haven't done that all year," Radwanski said. "The first time was on the bus on the way back from the conference tournament, when we reflected on our season and our record. 'Oh, my. A 19-1-1 record? That's pretty good.' I don't think anybody knows what our winning streak is."