Power Rankings: Fight for the finish

Courtesy of Bob Twidle

Central Michigan goalkeeper Grace Labrecque has allowed only six goals in 10 Mid-American Conference games.

In addition to trick-or-treaters, the end of October means the beginning of conference tournaments across the country. So before we get to the teams at the top of the college soccer heap, let's check in on four teams that the NCAA tournament would be better for having but that will get there only by winning conference tournaments over the next week and a half.

Central Michigan (Mid-American): As recently as five weeks ago, Central Michigan didn't look like a team that would merit mention by the time Halloween rolled around. After a loss at home against Dayton on Sept. 20, the team was 0-7-1 under first-year coach Peter McGahey. After a double-overtime win this past weekend against Ball State, the same team is 7-3-0 in MAC play.

If there is an award for gutsy scheduling, the trophy should be cast in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., but quality losses on the road against Indiana, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ohio State, Washington and West Virginia are still losses. For a team that had to replace seven starters and figure out a new coach this season to bounce back from that grind and enter its regular-season finale two points behind Western Michigan for the best record in the league is remarkable. But soccer adversity is nothing compared to what the players and coaches at Central Michigan experienced. In August, just as her sophomore season was getting under way, Josie Seebeck was killed in a car crash. Postseason soccer isn't going to change that, but it's a chance to keep the team together for a few more days.

Key player: The team has a losing record overall, but junior goalkeeper Grace Labrecque is 7-5-1. With the help of those in front of her (defenders Emily Basten, Kaylin Hoomaian and Estee Outcalt have each started all 18 games), she has allowed just six goals in 10 conference games.

Monmouth (Metro Atlantic): With an RPI of 65, NCAA tournament history suggests an at-large bid is out of reach. That's not unreasonable given a modest schedule outside the MAAC, with Monmouth's best wins probably coming against Delaware and Seton Hall, but it would be a shame if the conference didn't send what has clearly been its best team this season. The Hawks are tied with Penn, Texas Tech and UCLA for the fewest goals conceded this season (6), and only Texas Tech has done so in more games than Monmouth.

Making matters worse is that Monmouth doesn't get much out of its regular-season dominance. The team is 9-0-0 at home this season but the entire 11-team conference tournament is played on a neutral field in Orlando. To win that, Monmouth will have to play three games in four days. That's not a recipe for rewarding regular-season success.

Key player: It's not just about a stingy defense. A first-team all-conference pick the past two seasons, senior Dana Costello leads Monmouth with nine assists this season, while freshman Alexis McTamney leads with nine goals.

Navy (Patriot): Like Monmouth, Navy needs the Patriot League's automatic bid if it is to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. But at least it gets a chance to earn that bid on the field. In the days after the start of the partial government shutdown it wasn't clear what the future held for teams at the service academies.

A key conference game against American originally scheduled for Oct. 2 was postponed the morning of the game because of the shutdown. But the games resumed, and Navy travels to Army (you may have heard they have a rivalry) on Friday with a chance to complete a perfect league season. Either way, it has already clinched the top seed and the right to host the conference tournament, no small matter as it looks to fend off conference newcomer and NCAA tournament regular Boston University for the automatic bid.

Key player: Junior Morgan Dankanich leads the team with 12 goals, her second straight double-digit season.

Seattle (Western Athletic): If you can name the seven members of the WAC who play women's soccer, you know your conference realignment (for the record, Seattle is joined by Cal State Bakersfield, Grand Canyon, Idaho, Missouri-Kansas City, New Mexico State and Utah Valley). It's easier to just remember which team is on top. Seattle has allowed just two goals in conference play and long ago clinched the regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, even with a home-and-home series against Idaho remaining this weekend.

Why root for the Redhawks? Central Michigan, Monmouth and Navy have all been to the NCAA tournament within the past six years, but this would be the first appearance for Seattle's relatively new Division I program.

Key player: Junior Stephanie Verdoia is in the double-double club with 12 goals and 10 assists this season. Only six other players in the country can say the same.

Now on to the team's at the top of the rankings.

1. Virginia (18-0-0, last week's ranking: 1)

There were a lot of high-profile transfers in college soccer this fall, with Santa Clara's Morgan Marlborough, North Carolina's Alexa Newfield and Stanford's Taylor Uhl arguably the most prominent. But even before she scored her first goal of the season to give Virginia a 1-0 overtime win against Florida State on Sunday, Annie Steinlage had proved she belonged on that list. An all-conference pick at Michigan State, she transferred to Virginia for her senior season and stepped in as the starting holding midfielder for a team that just clinched its first ever outright ACC regular-season championship.

2. UCLA (14-1-2, last week's ranking: 2)

The Bruins don't budge despite dropping points in a 1-1 tie at Utah (and a quick tip of the cap to Utah keeper Lindsey Luke, who made eight saves in the draw against UCLA, eight saves in a 1-0 loss against Stanford the previous week and six saves in Sunday's 1-0 win against USC). As for UCLA, it piled up 23 shots in the draw and bounced back with a 1-0 win at Colorado. It is hard to win a national title averaging fewer than two goals per game, as is the case for the Bruins, but they aren't the only contender winning with defense while searching for more scoring consistency.

3. Florida State (14-1-3, last week's ranking: 3)

The Seminoles might not have been playing strictly for a draw Sunday at Virginia, but it certainly seemed like a result they would have been happy to take home. It was strange to see what is by all accounts a national championship contender manage just one shot. That said, short of making the College Cup, Florida State isn't going to see a tougher turnaround than games at Virginia Tech and Virginia, and the 2-1 win against the Hokies that preceded the game in Charlottesville was a strong result (even if Dagny Brynjarsdottir accounted for her team's only five shots).

4. North Carolina (15-3-0, last week's ranking: 4)

In 2005, nine players scored multiple goals for North Carolina. Why mention that? It's the only time this century the Tar Heels didn't have at least 10 players with multiple goals. There is a lot of soccer still to play, but the current tally stands at just four players. As November arrives, Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai continue to carry a heavy scoring burden. On an unrelated note, Megan Brigman has played 228 more minutes -- the equivalent of more than two and a half games -- than any of her teammates. A better result against Duke than Virginia Tech manages against Virginia will ensure North Carolina is on the opposite side of the ACC tournament bracket from the Cavaliers.

5. Santa Clara (11-3-1, last week's rankings: 7)

A season is the sum of all its parts, good and bad, but it's at least interesting to note Santa Clara has outscored opponents 39-8 since a rough opening weekend against Virginia and North Carolina. Of course, 9-0 wins like the one the Broncos had against San Francisco on Sunday tend to help things like goal differential. That represented Santa Clara's biggest offensive output in a decade, paced by Morgan Marlborough's hat trick. Four games remain in the league, including home games this week against last-place Loyola Marymount and fourth-place Pepperdine.

6. Denver (16-1-1, last week's ranking: 9)

The Pioneers couldn't quite pull off a conference clean sheet, but that's about the only nit to pick for the Summit League regular-season champions. After a 4-0 win Friday against South Dakota State, itself previously unbeaten in the league, Denver finished with a 2-1 win against North Dakota State. The Bison goal in that game, which came when they already trailed 2-0, was the first scored against the Pioneers in seven conference games. The four-team Summit League tournament starts next weekend in Fort Wayne, Ind., with host IPFW in the field.

7. Stanford (12-3-1, last week's ranking: 8)

The good news is Stanford went on the road and found some goals, breaking up a string of tough scoring days at home with a 2-1 win at Oregon and a 4-1 win at Oregon State. The bad news is the Cardinal don't face another team with a losing record, conference or otherwise, between now and the NCAA tournament. Taylor Uhl continues to play limited minutes off the bench, as she has the past two weeks.

8. Virginia Tech (14-2-2, last week's ranking: 5)

How do you look at a 2-1 loss at home against Florida State? On one hand, it's a loss. On the other hand, the Hokies held their own in the run of play against one of the ACC's premier programs, leveled the score late and were edged out in the 87th minute. So maybe a loss was still a confirmation of quality. At No. 10 in the RPI with a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament in play, a win this week against Virginia would be huge for reasons beyond state bragging rights.

9. Florida (14-3-1, last week's ranking: NR)

Florida has come and gone a few times in these rankings, but it's returning at the ideal time of year. The Gators eased through a difficult weekend, keeping their focus for a 3-0 win at Tennessee on Friday before securing a 2-0 win at home against Texas A&M on Sunday. Further strengthening her case for national freshman of the year, Savannah Jordan scored three goals total, including both against the Aggies, and has 18 this season. That makes six consecutive wins by a combined 15-0 margin since back-to-back losses against Missouri and South Carolina.

10. Portland (13-2-1, last week's ranking: 6)

Marquette is knocking at the door, especially when you consider that as host of the Big East tournament and the No. 4 team in the RPI, there could be a whole lot of postseason soccer on tap in Milwaukee. But Portland, which opened the season with a 1-0 win against Marquette, holds on despite Saturday's 1-0 loss at home against BYU. That's the first shutout loss for Portland since a 3-0 defeat against Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. A winnable game at Saint Mary's this week precedes next week's home showdown against Santa Clara.

Next five: Marquette, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas Tech

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