NCAA Women's Soccer: 5 Things You Need To Know

Steve Franz/Courtesy of LSU Athletic Communications

In addition to the NCAA somehow finding a way to rain on the long-overdue inclusion of women's players in the wildly popular FIFA video game series, there were soccer stories that unfolded on the field this past week. Missed the games? We have you covered.

1. Minnesota surges in the Big Ten

Someone in this space a week ago might have suggested that Penn State's win at Stanford was further proof that the Nittany Lions are best-served stepping outside their conference to find opponents with similar championship mettle. What a foolish person. Penn State remains the Big Ten's most likely national championship contender, probably its only one. It remains the team with the most talent. But two games into the conference season, it isn't in first place.

Minnesota clinched a successful weekend when it beat No. 20 Ohio State 2-1 on the road Thursday. But they weren't done, instead adding the biggest upset of the weekend with a 1-0 win at No. 4 Penn State on Sunday. It was Penn State's fifth Big Ten home loss in the past decade, although the third in the past three years. Junior Simone Kolander scored the game winner in each of Minnesota's victories. The Gophers had opened the conference schedule on the road in each of the past three seasons and lost all three games.

Add Minnesota to a mix that includes Michigan, which swept its opening two games in the league, and Rutgers, which is 8-0-0 overall and still hasn't allowed so much as a goal (and hosts the other contenders this season), and the Big Ten starts to look crowded.

2. LSU was the best show in soccer last week

In the span of 10 days, LSU lost its conference opener in double overtime, upset a ranked opponent for the first time this season, rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a game and scored five goals in another game against a perennial NCAA tournament team.

Are you not entertained?

All right, how about if the goal that completed the rally from the aforementioned deficit made "SportsCenter"?

Steve Franz/Courtesy of LSU Athletic Communications

Jorian Baucom, who scored two of LSU's five goals in a win over Marquette, already has 10 on the season.

Fresh off a win against ranked Duke the previous week, LSU maintained momentum in impressively entertaining fashion with wins against Georgia and Marquette. Trailing by two goals against Georgia on Thursday, LSU tied the game 3-3 on the highlight-reel free kick from Natalia Gomez-Junco. She then won it minutes later by simultaneously holding off a defender and volleying an attempted clearance past the keeper from 20 yards.

LSU again fell behind Sunday against Marquette, but there was less drama in a comeback in which the Tigers scored five unanswered goals for the win. Jorian Baucom scored two goals against Marquette and already has 10 this season, more than all but one player scored over an entire schedule for the Tigers in the five seasons that preceded this one. It's not a coincidence that LSU won double-digit games just once in that span. Nor is it one that the Tigers are already just three wins from double digits this season.

3. Cleanest sheets in soccer

A week ago, we meandered beyond the constraints of Division I to celebrate a great goal scorer, so let's return for someone who, along with a defense, excels at the opposite.

With a 3-0 win against Misericordia University, ranked ninth in Division III at the time, second-ranked Messiah improved to 5-0-1. There's nothing new about that. Messiah wins a lot, even against really good teams. And a clean sheet was nothing new when it comes to goalkeeper Audra Larson. The shutout was the 59th of her college career, tying the NCAA career record for all divisions previously held solely by Division II Grand Valley State's Chelsea Parise (former UCLA keeper Katelyn Rowland holds the Division I record with 55 shutouts).

It is impressive that Larson needed just 81 games to tie a record Parise set in 101. It is more amazing still that it may not give her school bragging rights. The keeper who preceded her for Messiah's juggernaut, Autumn Reilly, recorded 54 shutouts in 61 games.

Larson's first opportunity to break the record comes Tuesday at Eastern University.

4. Few goals but abundant drama in ACC

Clemson: It isn't that a 1-0 win at No. 10 Notre Dame is more intrinsically impressive than the next result we'll talk about, but No. 11 Clemson needed it more. There are a lot of parts of the puzzle, all-ACC and potential All-American goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan the best of them in general and arguably in South Bend, but it is really difficult to take the final step from competitive to contender in the nation's best conference. Beating Notre Dame on Saturday doesn't prove Clemson is there, but it's the kind of signature ACC win that eluded the Tigers even as they rose back to prominence over the past few seasons.

North Carolina: In a historical context, No. 3 North Carolina's 2-1 win at No. 9 Virginia Tech on Saturday isn't even a paragraph in the story of the greatest dynasty in college sports. But it's a nice headline if we're talking current events. The Tar Heels couldn't stop Virginia Tech's Murielle Tiernan from scoring because, well, no one can this season, but the win is the most impressive of the season for Anson Dorrance's team.

Duke: Mark Krikorian called No. 2 Florida State's 0-0 draw at No. 22 Duke one of the best performances he could recall in his time with the Seminoles, so maybe everyone got something out of a game that produced no goals. And, indeed, Florida State played out 110 minutes shorthanded by virtue of European Championship qualifiers. Yet Duke can't be disappointed by its second scoreless draw against a top-five opponent. The Blue Devils are trying to turn the attack that produced six goals Thursday against Appalachian State and nine total in wins against Fresno State and Weber State into a few goals against better opponents.

5. A win worth noting for Howard

Chances are even the most obsessive college soccer fans didn't dwell long on Howard University's 7-1 win against Mount St. Mary's University on Friday. That's wholly understandable, but it may have been one of the week's most notable results.

While the vast majority of Howard's athletic teams compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the MEAC doesn't sponsor women's soccer. As a result, Howard reached an agreement two years ago for its women's soccer teams to compete in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the other Division I conference home to historically black colleges. The SWAC sponsors soccer and sends a representative to the NCAA tournament, but the league's teams are often on the wrong side of wince-inducing scores -- this season alone saw Lamar beat Alcorn State 13-0, Kennesaw State beat Alabama A&M 12-0, Arkansas-Little Rock beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff 8-0 and Georgia Southern beat Alabama State 10-2.

Entering the weekend, SWAC teams had been outscored 239-86 in all games. Remove Howard from that count and the margin grew to 224-55. And this season isn't rare.

Mix the small athletic budgets with which SWAC schools operate and a sport in which minority participation in general remains unacceptably low -- NCAA data for the 2013-14 academic year showed that, excluding HBCs, just 5 percent of Division I women's soccer players were black -- and the result is a history of programs uncompetitive and adrift.

So it catches the eye when Howard, which won the SWAC regular-season and conference tournament titles a season ago but couldn't yet participate in the NCAA tournament, not only won a third consecutive game out conference but reversed the typical SWAC score line in the process behind two goals and two assists from Kela Gray.

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