Women's College Cup: Newcomer Alabama joins three former champions

Alabama coach Wes Hart preps his team at Wakemed Soccer Field ahead of the Crimson Tide's College Cup debut.

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Three of the four teams at 2022 NCAA Division 1 Women’s College Cup in Cary, North Carolina — defending champion Florida State (17-2-3), Alabama (23-2-1) and UCLA (20-2-1) — were No. 1 seeds in their regions of the bracket. A No. 2 seed, North Carolina (19-4-1), beat its region's No. 1, Notre Dame, in quarterfinals.

Two of the teams, UCLA and Florida State, are led by first-year coaches.

It will be the first meeting of the year between the Bruins and the Crimson Tide. The other encounter will be a rubber match, with the ACC rivals rotating 2-1 victories in their first two matchups.

Friday, Dec. 2
Florida State vs. North Carolina 6 pm ET.
Alabama vs. UCLA, 8:30 p.m. ET
Monday, Dec. 5
Final, 6 pm ET
(Broadcaster: ESPN+.)

1. Seminoles roll on smoothly after coaching change

Defending champion Florida State managed to overcome change and uncertainty to reach the College Cup for the third straight season. Coach Mark Krikorian resigned after winning his third national title (after FSU wins in 2018 and 2014) in 21 seasons at the helm. That influenced more than a dozen players to consider transferring. First-year head coach Brian Pensky convinced many of those players to stay with the team, a big reason why FSU earned a No. 1 seed, marched through its bracket region and is now within two wins of a fourth national championship.

Senior midfielder Jenna Nighswonger, a 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, has scored six goals and racked up 16 assists, the second most in the nation. Junior Midfielder Onyi Echegini, a transfer from Mississippi State, leads FSU with 10 goals and an experienced defense is anchored by junior goalkeeper Christina Roque, the 2022 ACC Goalkeeper of the Year.

Pensky served as the Tennessee Volunteers head coach for 10 seasons before arriving at FSU.

NCAA titles (3): 2014, 2018, 2021..

2. Tar Heels overcome injuries for College Cup return

Anson Dorrance, now in his 46th season at the helm, has guided the UNC Tar Heels to 21 of the 40 NCAA D1 titles. Their last championship win came in 2012. The Tar Heels finished runner-up in 2018 (to Florida State) and 2019 (shootout loss to Stanford), were semifinalist in 2020 but fell in the first round in 2021.

They return to the 2022 College Cup despite coping with a variety of injuries. All-American defender and senior captain Maycee Bell and All-ACC midfielder Sam Meza went down with season-ending injuries.

After blowing out their first-round opponent, the Tar Heels beat 2021 runner-up BYU, 3-2, and punched their ticket to the College Cup by upsetting a red-hot Notre Dame team in South Bend, Indiana, 2-0. Redshirt freshman Ally Sentnor and junior attacker Talia Dellaperuta, who both played for the USA at the 2022 U-20 World Cup, scored against the Fighting Irish. Junior forward Avery Patterson leads the Tar-Heels with 11 goals and her eight assists are tied with senior Forward Isabel Cox for most on the team.

NCAA titles (21): 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012.

3. Crimson Tide aims to cement dream season with the title

Alabama may be the underdog given its modest history — the Crimson Tide won its one and only NCAA playoff game in 2021 — but Coach Wes Hart's team began its NCAA tournament run annihilating Jackson State, 9-0, and then beat Portland, UC Irvine, and Duke (in overtime) to make it to the College Cup.

The Crimson Tide has scored goals in bunches this season; its 2.92 goal per game average ranks second nationally. Graduate student forward Riley Mattingly Parker, a 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, recovered from an ACL injury to score 17 goals, a tally tied for sixth most in the nation. Seven of those goals counted as gamewinners, tops in Division 1.

Junior midfielder Felicia Knox has pulled the strings for Alabama’s attack all season with seven goals and 20 assists, the most in all of NCAA Division 1 this season. Senior defender Reyna Reyes is another Hermann Mac semifinalist after she scored eight goals and helped the Crimson Tide achieve 12 shutouts. Gianna Paul captured the SEC Freshman of the Year award after scoring eight goals this season off the bench.

Hart, a former MLS player, became Alabama head coach in 2015 after serving two years as Krikorian's assistant at Florida State.

NCAA titles (0):

4. New coach steers UCLA back to final four

UCLA, under the guidance of first-year coach Margueritte Aozasa, is seeking its first national title since 2013 and first appearance in the championship game since 2017. The Bruins were 2019 semifinalist before falling in 2020 third round and 2021 first round.

Their path to the College Cup was not easy as the Bruins needed a penalty shootout to beat UCF and most recently recorded an overtime victory over the University of Virginia.

The Bruins don’t have problems scoring goals thanks to the duo of junior forward Reilyn Turner (nine goals) and senior midfielder Sunshine Fontes (11 goals and seven assists). Another U.S. youth national team veteran, Lily Reale leads UCLA’s defense, which has done a good job of preventing goals this season.

Aozasa, who replaced nine-season head coach Amanda Cromwell, served as a Stanford assistant coach to Peter Ratcliffe in 2015-2021, an era that included two Cardinal national title wins. The former Santa Clara captain had also coached at youth club MLVA.

NCAA titles (1)2013

Photos: Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics, UCLA Athletics

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