At-large bid means November Madness

Kaitlin Santana

Tensions and nerves filled the air of Kelly’s restaurant in Bryn Mawr on Monday afternoon as the women’s soccer team, staff and faithful fans awaited the announcement of the 2006 NCAA Tournament bracket on ESPNews. At quarter to four, these bouts of anxiety were replaced with cheers and jubilation as the team received good news.

For the fourth time in five appearances, the Wildcats have received an at-large bid into the NCAA women’s soccer tournament. They are scheduled to play their first-round game versus the University of Toledo Rockets Friday in State College, Pa.

“I was very nervous [before the brackets were announced],” Head Coach Ann Clifton said with a smile. “But I am feeling much better right now. Our team has worked so hard all year long. I am very ecstatic and proud of the girls for making it into the tournament this year.”

The NCAA tournament is single elimination and consists of 64 teams, with four teams at each of the 16 first-round sites. This year’s tournament includes seven Big East Conference teams, the most in conference history. Four Big East teams occupy Villanova’s quarter of the draw, including the No. 1 team in the quarter and No. 2 in Rating Index Percentage, Notre Dame.

Toledo’s record before the tournament is 9-8-4. The Rockets were the winners of the Mid-American Conference and thus received an automatic bid into the tournament. Although the team won its conference, Toledo was the fifth seed for the eight-team conference tournament and has one of the highest RPIs of the tournament with 169. The Rockets are on a winning high after the Mid-American Conference, however, and are not going to be an easy team to beat.

Villanova enters the tournament with a record of 15-3-2 and a RPI of 19. The ‘Cats are 3-2-3 in NCAA tournament games, including an advance in one of the three times the game went to penalty kicks, and have won three of their four-first round games.

The Wildcats bring an excellent defensive stronghold into Friday’s game. Through the end of the regular season, Villanova was third in the Big East and fourth in the nation in defensive play. The team also sports the two-time reigning Big East Goalkeeper of the Year, Jillian Loyden, making her the second player ever to repeat as the league’s top goaltender. Loyden was also named to the All-Big East First Team, along with being named Big East Goalkeeper of the Week three times and to the Big East Weekly honor roll another three times throughout the season. She carried a shutout streak of 736:24 from Aug. 29 to Sept. 24, marking the 15th longest ever in Division I history. Loyden also leads the nation in minutes played and is second in save percentage with .916.

Although Loyden has proven herself to be almost unbeatable in goal, she has an equally strong and talented defense positioned in front of her. Freshman Kelly Eagan was named to the All-Big East First Team as well, marking the first Villanova freshman to ever receive first team all-league honors.

The reputable defense is equally balanced with a talented offensive front. Junior Nikki Mabery and Melissa Murowski were named to the All-Big East’s Second and Third Teams, respectively. Mabery’s 11 goals in the 2006 season are the most by a Wildcat in eight years, and her five game-winning goals are two short of tying a school record. Senior Lindsey Finnegan is fourth all-time at Villanova with 11 career game-winning goals, and sophomore Nicole Coia was named to the 2006 CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine District II All-Academic Team. In total, 14 players have received weekly Big East honors this season, good for second most in the conference.

Based on the success and talent of this team following a disappointing Big East quarterfinal loss to Marquette, it may be surprising that practices during the following week would be described as fun. But that is exactly what the ‘Cats have been up to.

“It’s been a good week of practice,” Clifton said. “We’ve had music playing and just been focusing on having a good time again.”

Eagan agrees. “We’ve come to realize that we need to go back to having fun and loving the game, like we had in the beginning of the season,” she said. “We are definitely doing that, and practices are going really well right now.”

The result has been a rejuvenation of the team and a positive outlook for the first round game.

“We obviously want to compete and succeed,” Clifton said. “But playing is about having fun as well, and we wanted to get back to that.”