The calendar is preparing to turn to December and yet USD’s athletics program, winner of five consecutive West Coast Conference Commissioner’s Cups, is still entrenched in its fall sports season. The men’s soccer, women’s volleyball and football teams will play meaningful contests this weekend.
“We’ve had a very good fall thus far and, because we’re still playing, just how good it will be is yet to be determined,” Snyder said.
• Men’s soccer will advance to the program’s first NCAA final four appearance in 20 years by winning its fourth consecutive road playoff game on Saturday, 10 a.m., at Georgetown University.
• Volleyball, led by talented players such as junior Katie Hoekman (pictured, left) opens NCAA regional play at 5:30 p.m. Friday against Michigan State at UCLA. A Torero victory win sets up a second-round match Saturday night against either UCLA or Long Island (N.Y.) University.
• Football travels to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to face Marist College at 9 a.m. Saturday in a game rescheduled from Nov. 3 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The Toreros’ season finale is crucial because a victory gives them back-to-back Pioneer Football League championship seasons.
The only dilemma for Snyder is that he won’t be able to attend any of USD’s contests in person. Instead, he and his staff will be on campus to ensure that everything runs smoothly as the NCAA Women’s College Cup, an event to determine the national champion in Division I women’s soccer, takes place at Torero Stadium on Friday night (semifinals) and Sunday afternoon (title game).
“I’ll be checking my phone for updates on our teams, but I’ll be here for the College Cup,” Snyder said.
Here’s an updated look at the three USD fall sports teams that are competing this weekend:
Seamus McFadden, the only head coach men’s soccer has known, is in his 34th year, which means he’s seen it all. It’s the 20-year anniversary of his 1992 team that reached the NCAA title game against Virginia. His two most successful teams, record wise, were 19-game winners in 1986 and 1992.
Yet it’s McFadden’s 2012 team, one picked to win the WCC title in a preseason coaches’ poll only to start the season 2-6 before realizing the expectations, that’s turned out to be something special. Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal game at Georgetown puts USD among the nation’s elite eight teams, the last west coast team standing and only three wins away from capturing a national championship.
“I thought we were good … I’ve never really had a team in my career that has underperformed,” McFadden said. “I was pulling my hair out about this team. I credit my coaching staff because they remained positive with the kids.”
A mid-season system change provided a necessary offensive punch. An eight-game conference win streak propelled the Toreros to a 9-3 WCC record and the program’s seventh WCC title. The postseason has been a continuation of the late-season renaissance. Hard-fought wins over Cal State Northridge (2-1, double overtime), UCLA (5-2) and Tulsa (2-1) have come in spite of having to rally from behind each time.
Sophomore midfielder Connor Brandt, who had only one goal in limited regular-season action, has provided scoring depth on a senior-laden team with a goal in each playoff win.
“We’ve gelled as a team, it just took awhile,” Brandt said. “We’ve worked really hard and we’re getting the job done. It’s amazing to see where we were earlier this season and where we are now.”
A victory Saturday puts USD (14-8) into the NCAA Men’s College Cup in Hoover, Alabama.
Kandiss Anderson only needed one more class to graduate from USD. She could have done it and moved on with good memories as a student-athlete to show for it. But it wasn’t going to be that easy to just move on. She wanted one more go-around as a member of USD’s most consistently successful team sport.
The redshirt senior libero made the right decision. She’ll complete her degree soon, but she’s also been part of another WCC championship season and starting Friday, she’s a member of the program’s 16th team to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s squad, Jen Petrie said, is one of the deepest she’s had since becoming USD head coach in 1999. The depth absorbed the injury loss of one of its standout players, junior Chloe Ferrari, by defeating BYU in a five-set match to earn a share of the WCC title.
“I’m really proud of them and I think it’s a huge cog of confidence when you beat a Top 20 program at this point in the season and you’ve shuffled the lineup,” Petrie said.
The conference schedule was challenging enough for USD. A deeper, more competitive WCC was noticed too when the NCAA Tournament bracket featured six WCC playoff-bound teams.
“I’ve seen the conference go through cycles when we’d get one or two into the tournament, but to be WCC champion this year when six teams get in? That can’t be overlooked,” Petrie said.
Anderson said she believes in her teammates. She believes in her team’s desire to “dig deep,” to “compete on every point,” and ability “to find a way to win.”
The win over BYU is a good primer for what’s ahead for USD (21-6), beginning with Michigan State Friday and possibly UCLA on Saturday.
“We treat it as a new season,” Petrie said of the playoffs. “The players had a break at Thanksgiving, got some rest and then we watched the (NCAA) selection show together. The players were anxious to get back in the gym and ready for this next part of their season. Based on how they’ve competed in practices this week there is definitely a whole new level of intensity.”
No one ever said it was easy to win a championship. Winning back-to-back titles? That’s a feat that requires a lot to go right. Yet here come the Toreros (7-3 overall, 6-1 PFL) only a road win away from claiming a second straight PFL championship. The weather isn’t expected to be Southern California friendly at kickoff time, but Coach Ron Caragher’s advice to his team?
“It’s a difficult challenge to win on the road and the weather might be different, but we know this is an opportunity to win our last game of the season and win a share of a championship,” Caragher said. “We know we’re playing a good team, too. Our games with Marist in the past have been close and we know they’ll be up for it. We need to go into this game with the attitude of embracing the challenges.”
Caragher noted the importance of his team not turning the ball over — Marist leads the PFL in takeaways — an effective running game and a strong defensive effort with an eye on creating turnovers, too, as key ingredients for a successful USD outcome.
“We know what’s at stake,” he said.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of USD Athletics (volleyball), scottphoto.net (men’s soccer) and Ken Charnock (football)