Rounds two and three of the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship are this weekend, and Nebraska’s Hibner Stadium is one of eight host sites for the matchups.
The Huskers, coming off a 5-2 win over South Dakota State to open the tournament, will face Tennessee on Friday night. The winner of that contest will face the victor of Friday’s earlier match between Gonzaga and UC Irvine.
Here are the biggest storylines heading into the weekend.
Historic Upsets Allow Huskers to Host
When Nebraska secured its victory Friday, the team was prepared to go on the road for its next match. California would’ve been the most likely destination as the team walked off the field. By Saturday morning, they would’ve been prepared for a trip to Ohio.
Instead, they stay home. One-seed UCLA fell to UC Irvine in the hours after Nebraska’s match concluded, marking the second-ever occurrence of a top seed falling in the first round of the bracket. Four-seed Xavier lost to Tennessee the next day, leaving five-seed Nebraska as the highest-ranked squad in that section of the bracket.
“Coming off the field Friday night, we thought we were either going to Los Angeles or Cincinnati, so it’s certainly good to be back here,” Coach John Walker said after practice Friday.
It’s difficult to overstate the improbability of this outcome, even beyond the lack of prior top-seed upsets. There were no upsets across the rest of the bracket — only the two that allowed Nebraska to host. UC Irvine and Tennessee combined to be outshot 63-13, as UCLA had 20 more shots than the Anteaters and Xavier got off 30 more than the Volunteers.
UC Irvine had two total shots, the second being the 87th-minute winner. That came with the team down a player, who was sent off on a red card in the 75th minute.
Odds were defied on multiple levels to allow Nebraska to continue to host. The Huskers look to take in advantage of the opportunity in front of what will likely be a strong crowd.
Evaluating the Other Three Teams
Heading into the tournament, Tennessee didn’t appear as a particularly fearsome unit relative to other postseason-caliber squads.
Despite some draws against impressive foes, the Volunteers only beat one tournament team this season. They went 8-6-4 overall, 3-4-3 in conference play and entered the tournament having lost four of their last six. They rank top three in the SEC in goals, but bottom three in goals allowed. That being said, they were No. 32 in RPI entering the tournament.
The goals allowed stat makes the upset over Xavier all the more surprising. Tennessee put just two shots on goal while defending against 15. All of those, many of them quality chances, failed to get by keeper Ally Zazzara.
If Zazzara can have somewhat of a repeat effort, and the Volunteers play closer to their typical offensive level, that could present a real challenge for Nebraska.
“At this stage, if you’re playing, you’re good,” Walker said. “… Obviously Tennessee’s battle-tested, playing in the SEC.”
In the other matchup, UC Irvine looks to continue its magical run. The Anteaters reaching the tournament was impressive on its own, as they finished fifth in the Big West and got in via winning the conference tournament. They knocked out three of the league’s top four seeds, including regular season champ Cal State Fullerton, on the way.
They’ll need to beat Gonzaga this time, a team Nebraska has familiarity with. The Huskers won 3-1 when the teams met in late August, giving the Bulldogs their only home loss of the year.
More History on the Line
Nebraska has typically made it to the second round when it has qualified for the tournament. But getting past that has been a struggle.
The Huskers last made it to the third round in 2004, not advancing any further. Since the field expanded to 64 teams, they haven’t made the quarterfinals. Nebraska’s two quarterfinals appearances came in 1999 and 1996. Just 48 teams made the former, while 32 qualified for the latter.
This weekend provides about the most favorable path forward the team could have asked for. Of course, that’s nowhere near a guarantee, but it’d be difficult not to acknowledge the situation.
Nebraska players are motivated to deliver. Junior midfielder and Nebraska native Haley Peterson knows where this program has been in the somewhat distant past and is looking to help restore that.
“It’s awesome, like growing up I remember Nebraska being such a cool, good soccer school to come and watch,” Peterson said. “The atmosphere has always been awesome here and just to take that to another level and kind of bring the program back has been really fun.”
Less importantly, senior forward Eleanor Dale is close to becoming the top single-season goal-scorer in program history. She has 26 on the season, just one behind Kim Engesser’s 27 goals in 1998.