Nov. 22, 2003
Morgantown, WV - Sixth-ranked Florida State has become one of the nation's best soccer programs and it has happened in a short period of time. The Seminoles (15-7-1) are one of only two ACC teams to play for the conference title two of the last three years and they are one of just eight schools to play in three of the last four Sweet 16's. Florida State has the seventh-best all-time NCAA Tournament winning percentage and it is one of just six schools in NCAA Tournament history to win its opening round game in its first four trips to the tourney.
The Seminoles are a consensus Top 12 team in the national rankings, they have gone 15-3-1 in their last 19 games and they have joined No. 1 North Carolina as the only ACC school to record 13 or more wins for four straight years. Since 2000 only two ACC teams have more overall wins than FSU. There is one hurdle Florida State has not been able to overcome as of yet. In their two previous trips to the Sweet 16 the Tribe has yet to get a win. They will get another shot at the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals Sunday at 1:00 p.m. versus sixth-seeded West Virginia (15-3-2).
"Tomorrow is a once in a lifetime chance because you never know what the future holds," said freshman Julia Schnugg. "Next year you can be hurt or the team could drop a game at the wrong time and you never make it back to the Sweet 16. This is a great opportunity for us this year. We don't take anything for granted and we want to seize this chance."
"We have seen some of West Virginia on tape now and they are as good as advertised," said senior co-captain Amber Tollefson. "We will just try to stick to our game plan and give them a run for their money."
Florida State will step out at 1:00 p.m. Sunday and not only battle a great West Virginia team, a hostile crowd and a Hermann Award semi-finalist. They will also have to stare down history. The Tribe is not only 0-2 in Sweet 16's but they have never scored a goal in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. On top of that, the Seminoles are 1-3 all-time on an opponent's field in the NCAA Tournament.
"The only time we have been successful in an opponent's park was in the second round versus Florida in 2000," said head coach Patrick Baker. "It takes something special to win. You are always going to face a good team who is at home. They have usually had a lot of success at their own field and that is the case with West Virginia.
"We have been really fortunate to get to play some games at home. The most difficult thing is winning at an opponent's field. Four of the five home teams so far in the Sweet 16 won and the fifth went to a shootout. There is a reason you want to have a great regular season. You want a high seed so you can host. Home field means a great deal. We are not only facing a little bit of history and a great team but also a hostile environment. That does mean something in these games."
West Virginia isn't only good, they are good at home. The Mountaineers are 9-1-0 this season at home. They were 9-0 before No. 5 Penn State came to Morgantown less than a month ago and beat WVU 4-1. This is the second straight year FSU has traveled north to face a BIG EAST team in the Sweet 16. While the weather will be a lot warmer this year than it was in Connecticut last season, the opponent's aren't that different.
"West Virginia reminds me a lot of the UConn team that eliminated us last year," said Baker. "They have the BIG EAST midfielder of the year. They have a wonderful attacking presence. Their backs like to get forward and are very involved in the attack. They have very good flank players as well. It's very similar to the match-up we faced last year on the road in Connecticut."
"Last year we allowed UConn to score a few minutes into the game and that put us behind the eight ball. The first goal will be crucial for either team Sunday. The lead allows you to play a little differently. When we fell 1-0 behind to Auburn our mentality had to change. It was great we responded but you can't do that too many times against a good team."
Getting the first goal will be crucial in Sunday's match. West Virginia has staged just one come-from-behind win all season and all three of their losses have come when an opponent took a lead. Florida State has comeback on two occasions this season with the most recent come-from-behind win coming in the round of 32 when a golden goal in the 102nd minute completed FSU's comeback from a 1-0 deficit.
"That (the overtime win) carries over a little but at the same time this is a new game," said Leah Gallegos. "This is do or die Sunday and you have to put everything else behind you and focus on West Virginia. As much as you don't look forward, you can't get caught looking back either. What happened last week is over."
"Getting the first goal is so important," said Jez Ratliff. "We fell behind against Auburn and had to change our mentality a little bit. When we get the first goal we are more confident as a whole and especially in a hostile environment."
Goals have been tough to come by so far in the Sweet 16 outside of Chapel Hill. Florida won 1-0 on a late penalty kick. Villanova and BYU went to a shootout after a scoreless tie and UCLA downed Kansas 1-0. Creating chances and finishing those opportunities will be one key to Sunday's game.
"Goals are hard to come by and we see that every round," said Baker. "One goal is usually the difference. If you can manufacture a goal and defend well for 90 minutes, that more often than not stands up. I think both teams defend very well. Both have good midfields and both have a good 1-2 punch up top."
"We need to work well up top," said Gallegos. "The forwards need to put a higher percentage of our shots on frame. If we can work well together I know we can create some chances. Then it is up to us individually to finish."
Just as Hermann semifinalist Chrissie Abbott will garner a lot of attention from Florida State, Gallegos will merit the same attention from WVU. The Seminole striker is not up for a national award but ranks fifth among the Hermann Award semifinalists for goals and points and is third amongst that group in game-winning goals. In the 10 games in which Gallegos has scored, FSU has gone 10-0.
"I am going to try and not put an extra pressure on myself," said Gallegos. "I am going to try to go into the game confident and just play as hard as I can. Putting pressure on myself would just hurt my game.
"Each individual in their back four is talented and has pace. It will be a huge challenge for the forwards as a group to produce scoring chances versus a group that good."
Although they won't match-up one-v-one, Gallegos and Abbott will be focal points for both defenses. Although West Virginia's striker gets a lot of attention, FSU is well aware that there are a handful of Mountaineers that can beat them from an offensive standpoint.
"They have such a quality offense. We are going to have to play good defense all over the field," said Ratliff. "This team has defended well all season and we can't let up on Sunday."
"West Virginia is stacked with good shooters," said Schnugg. "We need to be conscious of where they are on the field and be aware that they will pull the trigger from anywhere and are capable of scoring. We need to defend well as a team and that is what we have done all season. If we defend as a team and remain aware of our position on the field, we will put ourselves in better position."
Baker not only thinks this West Virginia team is a lot like the great UConn team FSU saw last year, he also seems some similarities to his own squad. Both teams play the same formation and both possess similar assets in key positions.
"Because we play a similar system, it will come down to who will play better or which team can be more dynamic," said Baker. "The team that creates the chance that changes the complexion of the game will have the upper hand. For us, we have been in this situation before and we learned from both of those Sweet 16 games. We have to apply some of those lessons during the game."
Learning lessons from their two previous Sweet 16 losses has been a theme for this year's squad even dating back to last year. After losing to Clemson 2-0 in 2000 and then falling at Connecticut 1-0 last year, the Tribe has wanted another chance to get to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
"Without question this is a special opportunity," said Baker. "We were in the Sweet 16 in 2000 and then missed out in 2001. Going into 2002 you didn't know if we were going to get back.
"We have been talking about this moment for close to a year now. Losing at UConn, with the players we had coming back, we called every player that had committed to us at that point and told them that we wanted another opportunity to go a little further. We are at that point and it is going to take a great individual and collective effort by our players if we want to advance."
The group of commitments that Baker called after the UConn loss are now the FSU freshman class that are making their first ever Sweet 16 appearance Sunday. The group has been clutch all season for FSU and three have started almost every game and most of those starts came straight down the center of the pitch. They have shown no signs of being intimidated by NCAA Tournament play either. Of the six Seminoles to score goals in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, three are first-year players.
"This freshman class has been taken back about the level of soccer of our opponents but even more so by the level of play on this team," said Schnugg. "We put so much pressure on ourselves as a class to help anyway we can. We understand our role and try to take care of our responsibilities."
What will make 2003 different than the previous Sweet 16's? The Seminoles are playing an opponent that is as good if not better than the other two schools they lost to in the Sweet 16. They are on the road again, just like they were in previous years and they are the lower seed again. So why can the 2003 team take that next step?
"We are just as hungry this year but I think the difference this year is our expectations are a little higher than they have been in the past," said Tollefson. "This team is so talented and we believe we are capable of continuing to advance. Our will to win has to be greater than West Virginia's and we have to fight for 90 minutes."
"I love the mentality of this team. We are never satisfied," said Schnugg. "We all want the same thing and are on the same page. It will take a great effort to beat us but we know West Virginia is capable of that."
Another reason Florida State's players believe this year may be different is because of Tollefson. The lone senior who is still playing has been at the heart of Florida State's rise to a national power. She is easily one of the most popular players on the team and there is a definite push by all her teammates to extend her career another week.
"Playing this game for Amber is always a motivation for us," said Ratliff. "Nobody wants to see Amber in tears at the end of the game. We don't want this to be her last game. She has been to two Sweet 16's in her career but we want to help her get on step further."
"As I was taking off my cleats after practice I couldn't help but think I don't want my career to be over tomorrow," said Amber Tollefson. "If we can take one more step this program will go somewhere it has never been before. It won't be easy."
West Virginia is fighting to go to its first Elite Eight as well. This is the Mountaineers first ever Sweet 16 trip but it is the team's third straight year in the NCAA Tournament. West Virginia's only three losses came to teams that were in the NCAA Tournament and one, Penn State, has already advanced to the Elite Eight.
"I am excited and nervous," said Schnugg. "It is exciting to test ourselves against a team that good and in a lot of ways similar to us. I can't wait to see how our team responds. We have put ourselves in position to really be in a special situation just like West Virginia has. One of these teams is 90 minutes away from their first-ever Elite Eight."
"Any Sweet 16 game is going to be hard fought and your opponent wouldn't be here if they weren't deserving," said Ratliff. "West Virginia is a quality opponent. They are playing at home in their fist Sweet 16 ever so I am sure they will come out hot. We need to weather that initial storm and try and get the first goal of the game."
Florida State has been as hot as any team in the nation since starting the year at 1-4. All seven of their losses came to NCAA Tournament teams and five of those defeats came to teams in the Sweet 16. The FSU defense and goalkeepers have been setting records all year long and no Seminole team has ever combined the offensive and defensive prowess of the 2003 squad. The Tribe will not only rely on that but they will count on their athleticism and a willingness to fight that they hope will help them overcome the crowd, West Virginia and history.
"We have to rely on our athleticism and when we knock the ball around on the ground and start combining, we can be hard to defend," said Ratliff.
"I am so confident in this team," said Gallegos. "West Virginia looks great but you don't know how hard a team is willing to fight by watching them on tape. You can only know that when you step out. I expect West Virginia to fight us every inch of the way. I believe in our team and I will put my faith in them."
The ultimate goal for Florida State is to spend Thanksgiving together next week as they prepare to travel to third-seeded Florida for a right to play in the 2003 College Cup. The Gators punched their quarterfinal ticket Saturday. Will the Seminoles be able to follow suit Sunday?
"Even though this is our third trip to the Sweet 16, it is still special," said Tollefson. "You can never take it for granted. That doesn't mean we don't want to take the next step. Our goal is to be playing next weekend."
Florida State's Sweet 16 match with the Mountaineers is set for 1:00 p.m. Sunday in Morgantown, WV. The West Virginia Sports Information office will be providing live stats for the match. You can link to the stat broadcast from the official athletic website for the Florida State Department of Athletics at www.seminoles.com.