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December 13th, 2007 8:01AM
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Paul Kennedy on the Men's College Cup
You have to go back to 1996, the first college season of the MLS era, to find an NCAA Division I Men's Tournament semifinal involving two teams making their final four debuts.

Neither Ohio State nor Massachusetts was ranked in Soccer America's Top 25 preseason rankings.

Our bad.

No one has come forward with an Ohio State-UMass semifinal on their bracket sheet.

Anyone?

But it will be the Buckeyes against the Minutemen in Friday's second game in Cary (TV: ESPNU, live, 7:30 pm ET; ESPN2, delay, Saturday, Dec. 15, 11 pm ET).

This year's NCAA Tournament says a lot about the parity in men's college soccer. There's the argument that the pros have stripped the top programs of their best players.

To be sure, teams like UCLA and Virginia and North Carolina had lousy seasons.

And an unprecedented six seeds lost their first match.

But this year's NCAA Tournament is also a testament to perseverance.

To coaches like Sam Koch of Massachusetts and John Bluem of Ohio State who began with little resources and built winning programs.

And to players who believed when no one else did.

After being snubbed for an NCAA Tournament in 2006, Ohio State's seniors returned for the final year determined not be overlooked again. They've done so well that three might end up being picked in next month's MLS SuperDraft.

As for UMass, no Minuteman was on Wednesday's initial list of players invited to MLS's January combine. No matter.

The Minutemen have already won four games in this year's NCAA Tournament -- including a convincing win over No. 1 seed Boston College in the second round -- and are only two wins away from following in the footsteps of UC Santa Barbara, which was also unseeded in 2006 and was crowned national champion.

TOMORROW: Wake Forest-Virginia Tech



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