The 2021 NCAA Division I Soccer Tournament began on April 27th with first-round play. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the NCAA postponed the fall championship to spring and the 64-teams tournament was reduced to just 48-teams this year.
Unlike in a normal year where higher seeds hosts early round matches, the entire tournament was played in the state of North Carolina, an approach aimed at keeping everyone’s safety in mind. The NCAA allowed up to 25 per cent spectators capacity in the stadiums allowing coaches, family and friends of players to attend the matches.
All three rounds of the soccer championship were played between April 27 to May 5 with eight teams qualifying for the quarter finals. All four quarter finals match were played on May 9 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary Stadium, North Carolina. The first quarter finals match was played between Florida State and Duke which was concluded with penalties after 110 minutes, where Florida State won the shoot outs by 5-3 score.
In the next match, hosts North Carolina were up against Texas A&M, where the Tar Heels won the game by 1-0 score. Similar to the North Carolina and Texas game, the Virginia vs TCU match also ended in a 1-0 score with a 60th minute header from Virginia defender Lizzy Sieracki. The last quarter finals match was played between Santa Clara and Clemson, where Santa Clara’s Sally Menti scored an early goal in the 18th minute. Staying in the trend of 1-0 score for the day, Santa Clara secured the place in the semi-finals.
After a tough fight and well-deserved wins in the quarter finals, the four teams were looking ahead to the semi-finals. May 13th witnessed the semi-finals of the NCAA Soccer Cup Challenge 2021, the first match of the night played between Florida State and Virginia.
After a great effort from both sides, the score remained nil following the conclusion of extra time and headed towards penalty kicks. Once again Florida State left their opposition disappointed on penalties as they won 3-0 and proceeded to the finals. Despite a 45 minute delay in the North Carolina and Santa Clara semi-final match, it was very competitive and a joy to watch.
Both the teams were looking great, but as the match continued Santa Clara dominated the first half and went ahead 1-0. UNC’s star player and third overall pick in the NWSL draft Brianna Pinto scored an equalizer early in the second half of the game, but Santa Clara went on to score two more goals hence advancing to the finals with a 3-1 win.
Next up, top-ranked Florida State were up against 11th-ranked Santa Clara for the final of the NCAA Soccer Cup Challenge 2021. Regardless of the large disparity in the rankings between the two teams, Santa Clara overcame the second-ranked UNC in the semi-finals.
At half-time of the championship game both the teams were tied in a scoreless draw. In the 63rd minute, Florida State went ahead 1-0 as Jenna Nighswonger scored a terrific goal for her team. Santa Clara desperately tried to equalize and were rewarded with a goal in the 84th minute when Kelsey Turnbow fired the ball into the bottom left-corner of the net.
After 110 minutes of play, the winner for the NCAA title was determined through penalties. Even though Florida State had won their last two important matches through penalty kicks, the same magic didn’t work for them in the finals. Santa Clara surprised everyone overcoming Florida State 4-1 in penalty kicks to become the national champions.
This was the team’s first national championship after 20 years.
“Just really proud of what these women have accomplished,” said Danielle Slaton. “Especially in our county where there were so many restrictions for so long to see the adversity that they’ve overcome is really special.”
After the many restrictions in addition to new rules and regulations implemented, the tournament was a resounding success, culminating in underdogs Santa Clara crowned as the champions.