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Going dancing: ASU Soccer sneaks into second straight NCAA Tournament

The sluggish Sun Devils have their work cut out against No. 7 Santa Clara University in the first round

ASU graduate student defender Lieske Carleer (4) passes a Washington State defender at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Tempe. ASU won 5-1.

As seasons go, the ASU soccer team has been on a roller coaster of upsets and regrets. The Sun Devils suffered a heartbreaking loss on Senior Night, a bitter cold blowout in Colorado, and a crushing defeat to UA to end the regular season. But now the Sun Devils will get a chance at redemption in the NCAA Tournament as head coach Graham Winkworth prepares his players for an intimidating matchup against No. 7 Santa Clara University.

The NCAA announced the remaining 31 at-large bids Monday afternoon after 33 programs already qualified through conference tournaments or, in the Pac-12’s case, the regular season title. No. 2 UCLA effortlessly won the regular season title with a 10-0-1 conference record, leaving eight other Pac-12 teams with winning records hoping for spots.

Heading into Monday, ASU’s spot was far from guaranteed after the team lost four straight games to finish the season, a stretch in which it was outscored 9-1. Oddly enough, their one goal wasn’t even scored by a Sun Devil but by a UA defender, an own goal in their 2-1 loss to the Wildcats.

“It was disappointing to finish the season the way we did, but collectively the whole body of work was incredible,” Winkworth said. “I'm so proud of them.”

Despite poor play recently, Winkworth needed his team’s consistent play throughout the season to speak for itself. ASU’s resume included an upset win over No. 11 USC and close losses against No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Stanford. Even though they played well in those matches, Winkworth’s team slipped to 5th in the Pac-12 due to its season-ending slide. 

The NCAA must have been impressed by the Sun Devils’ season as they earned a matchup against Santa Clara University, their third appearance in four seasons. Winkworth now must reset his players’ mindsets after a long season to prepare for the daunting task ahead.

No. 23 Santa Clara comes into the match at 13-4-2 and 6-2 in the West Coast Conference. The Broncos have been far more consistent than the Sun Devils this season, going 6-3 since falling to No. 3 Stanford earlier this year. 

On paper, Santa Clara trumps ASU in almost every metric. The Broncos score more goals and take more shots while giving up fewer goals. While less efficient than the Sun Devils, Santa Clara's offense scores two goals per game on average and averages nine more shots than its opponents. 

Offensive depth makes the Bulldogs challenging to slow down as 14 different players have scored this season. Sophomore forward Farrah Walters leads the team with 11 goals and 24 total points. The Scottsdale native, who has been on Winkworth's mind, is now ASU’s most significant threat.

“When the recruitment process was happening before, we spoke considerably to Farrah and spoke considerably to Colby Barnett, two of their top three who are really special players. So we know we're up against top talent," Winkworth said. 

On the other end, Santa Clara suffocates offenses with its tough-as-nails defense that posted a 0.61 goals-against average this season, the 18th-best average in the entire NCAA. Redshirt senior goalkeeper Marlee Nicolos leads the Broncos’ defense with a 0.60 GAA while recording six shutouts.

ASU will need to fire on all cylinders for a chance to steal the match. Offensively, ASU has been anhit or miss this season. In some games, the Sun Devils overwhelm defenses and score multiple goals, while in others they can’t seem to get a good look at the net.

With a flair for the dramatic, ASU has scored 76% of its goals in the second half. Senior forward Gabi Rennie believes the team’s forwards aren’t setting up proper scoring chances and frequently settle for poor shots.

“I think we're fit and we are able to break teams open,” Rennie said. “But I think we need to make sure that we're patient enough in the first half to do that early on in the game and not force that too much.”

Like their opponents, the defense has been the Sun Devils’ bread-and-butter as they’ve quelled some of the most skilled finishers in the country. Redshirt senior midfielder Hannah Lapeire said the team’s tight-knit defense had been the focal point for success.

“I think, just as a team, and as a defensive unit, we pride ourselves on blocking shots and kind of getting behind the ball,” Lapiere said. “That's something that we've been really good at all season. So we really focus on that and always know that that's kind of our identity.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Pauline Nelles has kept the Sun Devils alive when their offense died out. Nelles boasted an impressive 0.50 GAA through ASU’s first 16 games but saw her average almost double in the final four matches. 

The match will come down to whether ASU’s defense can slow down Santa Clara and if Winkworth’s lifeless offense has a pulse. History isn’t on the Sun Devils’ side, as they are 5-9 in NCAA Tournament games, but Winkworth thinks they’ve got a fighting chance.

“I don't think it's gonna be a five-five game for sure,” Winkworth said. “I think it will be a tight game. We've obviously got to challenge ourselves against some of the best attacking players.”

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Sadie Buggle and Angelina Steel. 

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