TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — As great as this season’s Alabama Crimson Tide football has been, it’s still in uncharted waters.
On Friday, the Southeastern Conference regular-season champions will play their first Elite Eight match in program history after winning their first Sweet 16 match in program history. Both events occurred while Alabama was a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament, another first in program history.
Forward Riley Mattingly Parker (17 goals), midfielder Felicia Knox (20 assists) and goaltender McKinley Crone (10 shutouts) have already engraved their names in Alabama’s soccer record book. The Crimson Tide nearly swept the SEC singles awards, with Wes Hart also being named the league’s Coach of the Year.
Conquering the SEC was one thing. Now it’s essentially doing the same thing against the sport’s long-established premier division, the Athletic Coast Conference.
There are five teams left in the tournament, all battling for College Cup spots.
Additionally, they are all established in the elite having experienced numerous post-season runs. That includes the next team in Alabama, Duke, whose quarterfinals will be played Friday at 6 p.m
The Blue Devils come into Tuscaloosa as the No. 2 in the region, just below Alabama, and with a 15-4-3 record. It’s also Duke’s third straight year in the Elite Eight and sixth in the last eight years.
The other quarterfinals will be played Saturday with Arkansas at Florida State, North Carolina at Notre Dame and Virginia at UCLA.
It was in Florida State that Hart spent two seasons (2013-2014) as an assistant coach and helped oversee the Seminoles’ first national championship season in 2014.
“A little bit,” Hart said when asked if he’d considered the possibility of playing Florida State in the College Cup. “But like I said, we’ve been focused on one game at a time all year. I didn’t even see Duke until we won our last game. So let’s just focus on Duke and how we’re going to beat Duke. Hopefully when we get past Duke we can focus on that.”
Unlike the previous opponents’ playstyle, Hart looks forward to taking on a program that will be more aggressive.
“You’re not going to just sit back and absorb pressure,” he said. “They are a team that will come out and play.”
Duke has Michelle Cooper, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, who ranks fifth in the nation with Parker with 17 goals this season.
It’s by far the biggest scoring threat Alabama has faced so far in the tournament.
“Michelle Cooper will be a handful,” said defense attorney Gessica Skorka. “I trust our defense and I know we will be running for her money.”
If anything, Alabama might be lucky that Duke is the ACC team they will face at this stage of the tournament. Notre Dame and Florida State are also seeded at No. 1, and North Carolina is tied for the regular-season title.
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That’s no small feat compared to a Duke program that was national runners-up in 2011 and 2015; Rather, it is more a testament to how dominant other ACC programs have been since women’s soccer became an official Division I sport in 1982.
Much like college football goes through the SEC, women’s soccer goes through the ACC. The ACC has only missed out on the last 40 College Cups once, including 16 appearances in a row. Also, the conference has four consecutive national championship appearances, highlighted by two Florida State titles in 2018 and 2021.
It’s a plethora of records and performances, but the point is, in addition to the test Alabama faces here during this last home game, it could potentially only play ACC teams the rest of the way.
- Florida State, the tournament’s top overall winner, has achieved its fifth straight Elite Eight.
- Notre Dame, seeded at No. 1, is on a 12-game winning streak and has yet to give up a goal in the tournament.
- Second-seeded North Carolina is making its 16th trip to the Elite Eight since 2001. The Tar Heels also have 21 of the 27 national titles among the ACC schools.
- Virginia, number 3, is looking to win its second College Cup in three seasons.
Running the gauntlet of women’s soccer is a tall order for Alabama, but Parker and the roster have some momentum:
The last time Alabama played an ACC opponent, they defeated Clemson 3-0
The last time the Crimson Tide faced an ACC team in the NCAA tournament, it won (Clemson 1-0 in 2021).
The last time Alabama lost to an ACC team, it was a 1-0 loss to Miami early in the season.
Are these two teams the caliber of Florida State and North Carolina? No, and it doesn’t wipe away the 4-0 loss to the Seminoles last season.
But recent success against arguably the best conference in women’s football, combined with a side playing at historic levels, counts for something. And if there’s one team making such a run, it’s the 2022 edition of Alabama Soccer.
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As seen: Duke Women’s Soccer in Alabama
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