Nov. 21, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. - Alone with just their teammates and coaches on the bus ride home Sunday night after pulling off what some thought to be the unthinkable, many of UCF's women's soccer players allowed their emotions to gush practically out of every pore.
There were tears, primal screams, chants and enough hugs to last the two-hour ride - all with very good reason. The women's soccer program registered a truly historic weekend in Gainesville by beating Florida to get past the second round of the NCAA Championship for the first time in five years and upsetting perennial power North Carolina to reach the Elite Eight.
To understand the magnitude of what UCF accomplished you must realize that UNC is the women's soccer equivalent of the New York Yankees in baseball. The Tar Heels have won 21 national titles, most recently in 2008 and '09 with back-to-back championships.
Following UCF's gritty, clutch performance - one in which they clawed through two overtimes after giving up a late goal in regulation and won on penalty kicks - the Knights celebrated with a joyous bus ride the team won't soon forget.
``We're a crazy team as it is. But we were so full of energy and we were just so excited and happy,'' senior Katie Jackson remembered. ``We have great team chemistry and there's a special charisma among ourselves. We were just dying laughing and people would just randomly start screaming and cheering out of nowhere. It was an awesome bus ride.''
The Knights (13-4-6) are still enjoying this ride that has taken them to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1987. UCF will play No. 1 seed Wake Forest Friday at 7 p.m. in Winston-Salem, N.C. The two teams played in Orlando on Aug. 21 with Wake Forest winning 1-0. Silently, the Knights have hoped all season long for a rematch after watching the Demon Deacons climb in the polls and through the NCAA tourney.
``We're actually happy that we're playing against them,'' standout senior goalkeeper Aline Reis said. ``We think they're a great team and they have done so well. But we wished to play them again because we didn't feel like we played up to our potential in that game. We feel like we could have won.''
UCF got past North Carolina Sunday after Reis, all 5-foot-3 of her, launched her body into the air and parallel to the ground to make the save on a penalty kick. Usually fiery and UCF's emotional leader, Reis was initially stunned and didn't realize right away that the Knights had beaten North Carolina for the first time in 20 tries. But that quickly changed and the result was a pile of players on the field.
``When I saved that PK I don't even remember making the save. All I can remember is the ball in my hands and not knowing that we won. But I looked up and saw everybody running at me, so my first reaction was to put the ball up like a trophy,'' said Reis, who was credited after the game by legendary UNC coach Anson Dorrance. ``It was amazing and I still can't even describe the feeling.''
UCF head coach Amanda Cromwell, who has built the Knights into a powerhouse in her 13 seasons at Orlando with an overall record of 186-77-24, fully understood the significance of beating North Carolina on Sunday. A standout at Virginia during her playing days, Cromwell had never before beaten North Carolina. Not only did she get several congratulatory messages from former Virginia teammates on Sunday, but also several former UCF players were on hand to celebrate the moment.
``It took a while to sink in on the field. We were watching everything and it was just great with the big ol' dogpile and a lot of the alumni jumped over the wall to get on the field,'' Cromwell said. ``I think, for me, it was dinner afterward when we were sitting there and talking about going to the Elite Eight that it sunk in. It was an awesome feeling.
``It was an amazing weekend for sure, beating one of our in-state rivals at their field and then beating the perennial champions in UNC,'' Cromwell continued. ``All over my Facebook page I have former teammates saying, `I'm living through you.' And for our team to (beat North Carolina), we're sitting here with high confidence now for sure.''
Seniors Stacie Hubbard, Reis and Jackson vowed following a loss in the C-USA tournament that they were going to make this run in the NCAA Championships a memorable one. Now, they are vowing that even though they are excited about getting to the Elite Eight that they are hungry for more. There is a belief that they can topple Wake Forest on Friday and reach the College Cup Final Four next week in Kennesaw, Ga.
``I just knew (last) week before I stepped on the field that something great was going to happen. The best was saved for the end,'' Reis said. ``More than just adrenaline, there's a confidence that those wins have given us now. We beat two truly good teams and that gives us the confidence that we can keep moving forward. We're not done. We're happy with the Elite Eight, but we want to go further.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.