Qualifying in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field can be a short-lived thrill for many California teams, often tied with UCLA or USC, two of the top programs in the country.
“To get out of the first round you either have to be really, really good and get one of the highest seeds, or you probably have to travel through Los Angeles.” UC Irvine said coach Scott Juniper.
Over the last three years, Juniper’s team has flipped that script. Now it doesn’t matter how good you are or how high you rank, if you have to go through Irvine you won’t get to the second round. Over the past three seasons, the Anteaters have opened the NCAAs by eliminating UCLA on the road twice and USC once. The most recent win came last Friday, a 1-0 victory over the defending national champion Bruins, who were ranked second nationally.
But if you ask the Irvine players, none of these results can be considered surprises.
“As a team, we feel ready to compete with anyone. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side,” said the goalkeeper Glo Hinojosawho posted shutouts in all three wins and totaled 21 saves.
It’s just the people outside the locker room who are surprised, he agreed Alyssa Moorewho scored a goal in each of the tournament’s three opening victories.
“It’s more of an underdog perspective, like the underdogs,” she said. “We definitely never thought of ourselves as underdogs going into games. Within our team culture, we never see ourselves that way.”
Especially against USC and UCLA. Many of the women on Irvine’s roster are players the Trojans, Bruins and other big schools didn’t want – or those who went to bigger schools and didn’t play much there anymore.
They thrived under juniper.
defender Lilli Rask spent two years in Oregon but never started; She played in every game in Irvine this season. midfield player Tati Fung went to Texas before leaving after a year; She leads Irvine with eight assists this season. And midfielder Aislynn Crowder signed with UCLA out of high school but only appeared in four games over two seasons. So she transferred to Irvine last year and played 22 games in her first year. She had the assist on Moore’s game-winning goal last Friday.
“I think a program like ours, when you compare it to a UCLA or USC and the biggest schools across the country, can grow through mistakes,” Juniper said. “You don’t have to be perfect when you’re on the field. And at some of these other schools, you get your chance, and if you’re not perfect, those five minutes don’t go further.”
Perhaps the most important reason for Irvine’s tournament success, however, is the fact that the team can keep up with the competition. Although Juniper is in his 16th season as coach, the Anteaters had only made two NCAA appearances in their history before winning the first of three straight Big West titles in 2021. And their regular season record over the last two years combined is a lackluster 13-12-11.
But the team digs a little deeper, plays a little harder, on the biggest stage, where the anteaters become giant killers.
Two years ago, Irvine was outscored 19-4 and had just one attempt on goal against an undefeated UCLA team that was ranked second nationally. But that shot, a Moore header in the 14th minute, went home and Hinojosa made eight saves for a 1-0 win in Amanda Cromwell’s final game as coach at UCLA.
The next year, Hinojosa again made eight saves and Irvine scored two of its three shots on goal in a 2-0 win over USC.
Last Friday’s win was also well deserved. Irvine played the final 15 minutes short-handed after losing midfielder Chloe Ragon to a second yellow card and were bowled out 22-2. But Moore’s 87th-minute goal and Hinojosa’s five saves were enough to knock out the Bruins.
“We call ourselves a playoff team,” said Moore, a criminology, law and society major who said her college career would end with Irvine’s next loss or the NCAA championship game, whichever comes first. “Obviously we didn’t do that well in the regular conference [games] the last two years. But as soon as it’s win or go home, that’s when it starts.
“It’s a completely different mentality, a completely different team. We’re turning on something that we can’t really find in these regular conference games.”
It’s also something they couldn’t find after the first round of the NCAA tournament. After defeating UCLA in 2021, Irvine was defeated by Wisconsin a week later. And last year, after beating USC, the Anteaters edged Brown in a decisive shootout before losing to Alabama in the third round.
This weekend, Irvine (9-7-6) travels to Nebraska to face Gonzaga (14-3-2).
“We learned a lot,” Juniper said. “Once you’ve done it a few times, you learn a lot about how to prepare, how to make the jump from winning the conference to getting into the first round and preparing for it. And then what it takes to properly prepare and avoid some of the problems you face when traveling across the country into an unfamiliar area.”
If unseeded Irvine upsets Gonzaga, an eighth seed, it will face the winner of the Tennessee-Nebraska game with a spot in the Elite Eight at stake, which would be first. To outsiders, the Anteaters will be the underdogs in both games, which is very important to them. Because in their locker room they don’t collect anything.
“We’re giving it our all,” said Moore, who scored four goals in seven NCAA Tournament games. “We know we can win a lot more games if we play like we have in the last few games. We’re not just here to get to the round of 16.
“If you can make it this far, you might as well try to go all the way.”
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