Why UC Irvine women's soccer is so good at pulling off NCAA tournament upsets

Making the 64-team NCAA tournament field in women’s soccer can be a short-lived thrill for many California teams, who frequently find themselves placed in brackets with UCLA or USC, two of the top programs in the country.

“To get out of the first round, you’ve got to either be really, really good and take one of the highest seeds, or you’re likely going through Los Angeles,” UC Irvine coach Scott Juniper said.

In the last three years, Juniper’s team has flipped that script. Now it doesn’t matter how good you are or how high a seed you have, if you have to go through Irvine, you’re not getting to the second round. In the last three seasons, the Anteaters have opened the NCAAs by eliminating UCLA twice and USC once, all on the road. The latest victory came last Friday, a 1-0 win over the defending national champion Bruins, who were ranked second in the country.

But if you ask the Irvine players, none of those results qualify as upsets.

“As a team, we feel we’re ready to compete with anybody. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side,” said goalkeeper Glo Hinojosa, who pitched shutouts in all three of those wins, making 21 saves combined.

It’s only the people outside the locker room who are surprised, agreed forward Alyssa Moore, who scored in each of the three tournament-opening wins.

“It’s more of an underdog perspective from like the outsiders,” she said. “We definitely have never considered ourselves the underdog when we go into the games. Within our team culture, we never view ourselves like that.”

Especially against USC and UCLA. Many of the women on Irvine’s roster are players the Trojans, Bruins and other big schools didn’t want — or ones who went to bigger schools, then didn’t play much once they got there.

Under Juniper, they’ve thrived.

Defender Lilli Rask spent two years at Oregon but never started; at Irvine, she appeared in every game this season. Midfielder Tati Fung went to Texas before leaving after one year; she leads Irvine with eight assists this season. And midfielder Aislynn Crowder signed with UCLA out of high school but appeared in just four games in two seasons. So last year she transferred to Irvine and played in 22 games her first year. She had the assist on Moore’s game-winning goal last Friday.

“I think a program like ours, if you made a comparison with a UCLA or USC and the biggest schools around the country, is you can grow through mistakes,” Juniper said. “You don’t have to be perfect when you’re on the field. And at some of these other schools, you get your opportunity and if you’re not perfect, your five minutes doesn’t go any further.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for Irvine’s tournament success, however, is the fact the team plays up to the competition. Although Juniper is in his 16th season as coach, the Anteaters had made just two NCAA appearances in their history before capturing the first of three straight Big West titles in 2021. And their regular-season record the last two years combined is a lackluster 13-12-11.

But the team digs a little deeper, plays a little grittier, on the biggest stage, where the Anteaters become giant killers.

Two years ago, against an unbeaten UCLA team ranked second in the nation, Irvine was outshot 19-4 and put just one try on goal. But that shot, a Moore header in the 14th minute, went in and Hinojosa made it stand up with eight saves in a 1-0 win in Amanda Cromwell’s final game as coach at UCLA.

The next year, Hinojosa again made eight saves and Irvine scored on two of its three shots on goal in a 2-0 win at USC.

Last Friday’s win was similarly well-earned. Irvine played the final 15 minutes short-handed after losing midfielder Chloe Ragon to a second yellow card and was outshot 22-2. But Moore’s goal in the 87th minute and Hinojosa’s five saves were enough to knock out the Bruins.

“We call ourselves a playoff team,” said Moore, a criminology, law and society major who said her college career will end in Irvine’s next loss, or the NCAA championship game, whichever comes first. “Clearly we haven’t done that well in regular conference [games] the past two years. But as soon as it comes to win or go home, it’s on.

“It’s a completely different mentality, completely different team. We switch on something that we can’t really find in those regular conference games.”

It’s also something they haven’t been able to find after the first round of the NCAA tournament. After beating UCLA in 2021, Irvine was routed by Wisconsin a week later. And last year, after beating USC, the Anteaters edged Brown in a tie-breaking shootout before falling to Alabama in the third round.

This weekend, Irvine (9-7-6) travels to Nebraska to face Gonzaga (14-3-2).

“We’ve learned a lot,” Juniper said. “Once you’ve done it a few times you learn a lot about how to prepare, how to make that jump from winning your conference, then going into the first round, preparing for that. And then what it takes to prepare properly and avoid some of the issues you face when you go across the country to an unfamiliar sort of territory.”

If unseeded Irvine upsets Gonzaga, an eighth seed, it will face the winner of the Tennessee-Nebraska match with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line, which would be its first. To outsiders, the Anteaters will be the underdogs in both games, which is just the way they like it. Because in their locker room, they are conceding nothing.

“We’re going for it all,” said Moore, who has four goals in seven NCAA tournament games. “We know we can win many more games if we play the way that we have been these past couple of games. We’re not here to just make it to the round of eight.

“If you’re going to make it that far, you might as well try to go all the way.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.

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