By Elliott Finebloom & Jez Ratliff
Nov. 6, 2003
Cary, NC - When Florida State head soccer coach Patrick Baker agreed to move No. 9 FSU's opening round game to noon, he was taking a risk. His team was flying in the night before from Tallahassee and had to turn around and step out with a Wake Forest squad that made a short drive to Cary, NC the night before. He did it for a few reasons but one was that if his team was fortunate enough to advance, they could spend all day Wednesday just enjoying the nation's premiere conference championships. The calculated risk paid off and that is exactly what the Seminoles did after downing seventh-seeded Wake Forest 2-1.
"I made the risky decision based on two things," said head coach Patrick Baker. "The first reason was we played well in the noon game back 2001 of the ACC Tournament and I was hoping we could experience some those same feelings again. If you are fortunate enough to advance out of the first game, you get to relax a bit and watch 6 other teams battle for the remaining three semifinal spots. The second reason was rest and recovery and playing in the 8 p.m. game wasn't going to give us the opportunity for maximum recovery - playing at noon provided that option."
As the soccer season progresses, the games come at a quick pace and the student-athletes are trying to balance school with practice and games so they don't always get a chance to really reflect on how special it is to be playing in the ACC and the conference's tournament. But when you head to Cary, NC and see the brand new SAS Soccer Complex it is hard not to stop and just take things in.
"This tournament is everything I imagined it would be," said freshman India Trotter. "The ACC is arguably the best women's soccer conference in the nation. Having the opportunity to participate in it is just awesome."
"One of the reasons I came to Florida State was to play in the ACC and I think that goes for most of the players on all eight teams," said Kelly Rowland. "Being here at this tournament is what it is all about. The best teams in the nation are all right here. It is such an amazing opportunity."
The tradition of the ACC is unmatched and a lot of that obviously has so much to do with No. 1 North Carolina but it extends to the talent on every team. From Kelly Hammond at Virginia to Cat Reddick and Lindsay Tarpley at Carolina, the best players play in the ACC. There is Casey McCluskey at Duke and Jenny Biscoe at Maryland. Allison Graham, Alena Thom, Lori Chalupny and the list goes on and on. That is what makes the conference and this weekend in Cary so special.
"Playing in this conference is so special because from the top to the bottom, you are facing the best soccer players in the nation," said Joy McKenzie. "As a keeper that is both nerve-wrecking and exciting. There are some amazing attacking players in the ACC and some other players that are a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Cat Reddick is one of those players but when you face players of that caliber, you really get a chance to test yourself."
For All-ACC fist team member Gallegos, the talent level on the opposing teams is amazing but what makes the ACC Championships special for her is the time spent with teammates. The more you win, the more chance you have to cement memories with the players you have spent everyday with since the sweltering three-a-days in August.
"This conference and tournament are so challenging because you get to see the best players this country has to offer on the collegiate level," said Leah Gallegos. "As good as the competition is playing with my teammates is still the most special thing for me."
That was an experience FSU missed out on last year when they were eliminated in the first round of the ACC's by Friday's opponent Maryland. The 4-2 loss in Tallahassee marked the first time in four years that Florida State hasn't advanced to at least the semifinals. That is something that this year's returners haven't forgotten.
"Our freshman year was so exciting. We made it to the finals and played North Carolina on TV," said Camie Bybee. "Last year was a disappointment. All I am hoping is that we can return to where we were my freshman year and get another chance to play in the finals because that was a special feeling."
"Every time I play in this tournament it gets more special," said Amber Tollefson. "We have had our highs in lows in these championships and this is my last go around. Last year's loss to Maryland was tough but it is all part of what this tournament is about. Outside of North Carolina, there is not that much that separates No. 2 from No. 8."
Heading into the weekend six of the conference's eight squads were ranked in at least one poll and Florida State, Virginia and UNC were all unanimous top 20 teams. Seven of the ACC's eight teams have been ranked this season and the conference has more teams in the top 25 of the SIS rankings than any other despite the fact four ACC teams are ranked in the top five for schedule strength.
"There is such a high level of soccer being played here and every game is so competitive, that makes it a lot of fun to watch," said freshman Colette Swensen. "It feels great to be a part of a conference with such an elite group of teams."
"I think what I realized most is that how few people get the chance to play in the ACC Women's Soccer Championships," said Jessica Bell. "The chance to play in the semifinals and maybe go to the championship game is exciting. To have your friends and family watch you battle for the conference crown is what makes this week special for me."
For many of this year's Seminoles the tournament is even more special because of the setting. The SAS Soccer Complex features a 7,000 seat stadium that was the home of the Carolina Courage of the WUSA. It is a beautiful soccer palace in a great soccer area that turned out in large numbers Wednesday night as 1,800 fans showed up for the quarterfinals.
"The SAS Soccer Complex is beautiful," said Rowland. "Everything is just first class and it makes us as players feel special when we get to compete at a facility like this, which next month will be the host site for the College Cup."
"I couldn't have asked for a better stage for my last ACC Tournament. Playing on the same field as the Carolina Courage where my idol Kristy Whelchel played is so special," said Tollefson. "I am just having a great time."
Ultimately the ACC Soccer Championships are about respect. Every team came to Cary on Wednesday trying to prove to the NCAA Soccer Committee, the seven other ACC schools and the entire soccer community that they belong. Show well on this stage and you have really proven your worth.
"Playing in the ACC Championships this season is really special to me because it gives us a chance to prove ourselves again," said Alli Ferreri. "If you can succeed in this conference, people throughout the country will respect you. We want to show that our second place finish in the regular season was deserved because we worked hard to get there."
For more information on the 2003 ACC Championships semifinals and the Seminole soccer team, please log on to www.seminoles.com, the official athletic department website for Florida State University.