Timing is everything for UCLA, FSU
CARY, N.C. -- For two schools with a considerable amount of College Cup disappointment in their past, late is better than never.
Better a late bit of good fortune to rescue a game played on another team's terms for Florida State.
Better a late start to the season for a surprising star who lived out something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for UCLA.
And after 16 combined appearances in the College Cup, better a first championship for one of them when they meet Sunday (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET).
No. 2 UCLA didn't beat No. 1 Virginia in the night's second semifinal, but it didn't lose the game, either. Against the tournament's top overall seed and a team that had raced through the regular season several steps ahead of the competition, that was good enough.
After a 1-1 draw in regulation and two scoreless periods of overtime, goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland's saves in the ensuing penalty shootout opened the door for Rosie White's clinical finish from the spot to clinch a place in the championship match for the Bruins.
Rowland and White nearly didn't get a chance to take their star turns. After Virginia's Makenzy Doniak pounced on an errant UCLA backpass and scored her 20th goal of the season in the 73rd minute, it appeared the Cavaliers would escape with a 1-0 win.
Enter Ally Courtnall -- quickly. Pushed up into the midfield from her normal role as an outside back as the Bruins tried to find an equalizer, she raced down the right side, gathered in a pass from Sarah Killion just inside the 18-yard box and finished low past the goalkeeper in the 85th minute for just her second goal of the season.
It was the latest Virginia had conceded a goal since a meaningless tally by VCU the first weekend of the season.
This one wasn't meaningless. This one gave the Bruins life.
It also further enhanced what is surely the best return on investment in coach Amanda Cromwell's career, the sales pitch the first-year coach put on Courtnall to play soccer this season instead of focusing solely on track.
"I knew that she was a great athlete and also a tremendous soccer player. Usually that combination will help your team." Cromwell deadpanned of her motives in pursuing the player she calls her first recruit at the school. "You saw tonight, she's been defending really well throughout the playoffs. Sarah played a great through ball to her, and to have the composure -- we didn't have the best angle, so I couldn't tell where the defense pressure was coming from, but everyone thinks those are just layups.
"She kept her composure and she buried it."
It wasn't just one moment with the ball, either. A week ago, Courtnall ran up and down the field all night with North Carolina's Kealia Ohai, an All-American who is both one of the fastest and most talented strikers in the college game. Courtnall won the battle, and UCLA won the game.
Doniak got the goal down that same side on a miscue in which Courtnall played no role, but the defender largely made life difficult for the talented left side of Virginia's attack, showing the speed of a track standout and the physical toughness that might be expected of the daughter of former NHL player Russ Courtnall.
The game would have missed her had she followed through on her original plan to walk away from soccer.
"I think I was just a little bit burnt out of playing two sports," Courtnall said. "It definitely is a very busy schedule and it's season year round, so I just kind of decided I wanted to focus on one more than the other. That happened to be track. I was definitely way more into that sport at the time and kind of lost desire to play [soccer]."
Cromwell first reached out to Courtnall this past spring, not long after the coach took the job. It proved not to be an easy sell. Courtnall initially rejected the overtures from a stranger. The sales pitch continued. Text messages followed, along with pictures of Courtnall celebrating goals and generally looking happy as could be on the soccer field.
Still the target was unmoved. As the soccer team began its preseason work, Courtnall went out of town for a couple of weeks. She figured that would be that. The coach had tried, but surely she would turn her focus to the roster she had.
Instead, Cromwell asked her to come by her office when Courtnall returned to campus. Inside, not just Cromwell, but the entire coaching staff waited. How would she feel, they asked, if they won a national championship and she had to watch from the couch at home?
How would she feel if everybody else got one of the shirts and hats that magically appear on the field after a title?
"They just kind of threw everything at me, and I just knew right then," Courtnall said. "I needed to come back."
First Courtnall requested the coach run it by the team's leadership council. Only after they gave their blessing did she make the return official, just in time for the nearly two-week road trip the team took to tournaments at Notre Dame and Duke, a trip that was important for results but perhaps more important for players and coaches getting to know each other.
She isn't the sole important piece of the nation's stingiest defense, one that includes an All-American like Abby Dahlkemper, but she was the piece that completed a defense that held Virginia in check.
Courtnall joked after the game that it was a good thing she did come back because the coaches were right. She wouldn't have forgiven herself for sitting at home and watching UCLA win this game.
The truth, of course, is that UCLA wouldn't have won the game without her.
"I honestly couldn't imagine being that person that is going to change the game like that for our team,' Courtnall said. "Just scoring a goal was honestly the best feeling ever, just getting our team back into the game and realizing we're that much closer to getting to the championship game.
"I had so much fun playing, which I hadn't in a really long time."
Coming on the heels of the third meeting this season between Florida State and Virginia Tech, Virginia and UCLA felt at times like watching chess immediately after watching a battle sequence from "Braveheart" -- same basic principle of contested real estate, decidedly different presentation.
Only after Florida State's Jamia Fields loosed what seemed at first a wayward cross but turned into an 83rd minute goal when the ball drifted in at the far post from 30 yards out did the Seminoles survive.
If it wasn't a cross, as Fields implied after the game, it was a curious shot. On this night, Florida State's 17th goal of the season beyond the 80th minute was enough.
"It's not always pretty," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said of the 3-2 win. "As a matter of fact, not pretty much at all."
As it had on the same field in its biggest win to date against Virginia in the ACC tournament exactly four weeks earlier, Virginia Tech struck first when Ashley Manning held her ground against ACC defender of the year Kassey Kallman, fought over a challenge to get on the end of a long pass from Kelsey Loupee and finished for a 1-0 lead. Florida State got an equalizer shortly before half when Kristin Grubka headed home a free kick from Marta Bakowska-Mathews, but the opening goal set a tone for the game.
With no surprises left between such familiar teams, the Hokies were up for anything the Seminoles wanted to throw at them.
"I thought that they broke the rhythm of our play very well," Krikorian said. "I thought that through the course of the game there were moments where we probably should have passed the ball a little bit quicker and found that wide space. And we held onto it for another count. I think it led to an awful lot of tackles and us having to go to ground and them having to go to ground and a lot of more physical play than beautiful soccer."
For large swaths of the season, Florida State was a team that excelled in playing attractive soccer, or at least piling up good possession statistics, without turning that work into goals. Six of the Seminoles' first 14 games ended in 1-0 wins. Five times through the regular season and conference tournament, they won by 2-1 margins. Even with a surge of goals in the NCAA tournament, they entered the College Cup ranked No. 28 in the nation in scoring, not bad in the scheme of things but not typically the territory of championship teams.
The goals came this night, as did the good fortune when Virginia Tech's Jazmine Reeves twice hit the post with shots. It was late coming, but a team that had to replace five starters from last season's College Cup came together when it mattered.
"We also knew the cupboard wasn't bare," Krikorian said of this season's reload. "We knew that we were going to be talented, but I thought that it took us a while through the course of the season to really mold into a good soccer playing team. We were able to find different results and get the games, but I don't think our staff was thrilled with some of the quality of play that we had. We also know that we have an awful lot of technicians on our team, kids who are very good with the ball. If you put a lot of players together that can think and move and read the play, then oftentimes the results will follow."
Either Florida State or UCLA will win a championship Sunday. It won't be any less sweet for its late arrival.