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Tar Heels sharing the load

There are three top undefeated squads ranked in women's college soccer - and picking out the first among equals is no easy task.

North Carolina strengthened its claim to the highest rank, refuting the critics of who picked on their relatively soft early schedule by dominating their Sept. 22 matchup with up-and-coming Florida State, 4-1. The Tar Heels then picked up even more steam, notching victories of 4-0 over Miami, 5-1 over Clemson, and most impressively, 4-0 over Maryland, who took UNC to overtime last year.

The Tar Heel dynasty is sharing the plaudits as well, with Kacey White, Mandy Moraca and Elizabeth Guess stepping up for goals and assists alongside the regular national team trio of Lindsey Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny.

Those victories are enough to make their place in the standings legitimate, though I would pick still Penn State above the Tar Heels. It's just must more impressive when you keep an unbeaten streak with wins over the likes of UCLA.

The Lions have demonstrated toughness as well, gutting out three overtime victories this season, the last against Wisconsin. Tiffany Weimer has shouldered most of the load, scoring in every game (twelve so far) to challenge the streak of Brandi Chastain of fifteen games with a goal.

The stretch of tough matches that could give a true measure of UNC's championship caliber is coming up. The team takes on Virginia (#7), Duke (#9) and Boston College (#10). All of those teams are capable of taking on North Carolina and coming up with the victory.

The last of the undefeated teams, Portland, behind the impressive Christine Sinclair, was steamrolling opponents until matching up against in-state rival Oregon, where they escaped with a 2-1 victory in overtime.

That's part of the reason local competitions are great. Playing for territorial bragging rights can set teams on fire. It doesn't matter if the teams are ranked with a wide disparity between them - such as Texas and Texas A & M. The fourteenth-ranked Aggies lost to the unranked Longhorns 2-1, as the home crowd and the gritty play of Dianna Pfenninger made the difference.

Santa Clara (9-2-1) has shown up in the rankings as the resident schizo, upsetting previously undefeated Notre Dame, then losing to the UCLA Bruins, and more surprisingly, to Stanford in another local showdown. Dynamic Rachel Buehler notched the game's one goal for the Cardinal. This caused the Broncos to slip out of the top ten, but the quality on the squad may make them the most dangerous spoiler team in the NCAA tournament.

Santa Clara's Jordan Angeli has completed one of the most unusual field player transitions - from defender to forward - to stunning results, as she leads the team with six goals.

Virginia has an identical record to Santa Clara, but is ranked at number five - which seems a bit inexplicable, as losses to Penn State and Tennessee would seem to be equal to those sustained by the Broncos. With Sarah Curtis' strike in their most recent win, however, 1-0 over Miami, the Cavaliers improved to 4-0 in the ACC, their best start ever.

UCLA, however, is ranked the highest of the teams with a loss, the double-overtime heartbreaker to Penn the only blemish on their record. Though much was made of the arrival of Kara Lang, who has pitched in with five goals, Danesha Adams has doubled that output. She had both goals as the Bruins rallied in the second half to defeat Pepperdine 2-1 on October 2nd.

Look out for some more fireworks when UCLA faces the talented Troy freshman in their crosstown rivalry on Friday.

Notre Dame was hanging on the last spot in the top five, until they were squashed recently by Marquette, 4-1. Marquette keeper Laura Boyer absolutely stoned the Irish - saving 13 of 14 shots on goal and helping vault the Warriors into a top ten ranking of number eight.

It remains to be seen how meaningful the national rankings are when it really matters, though. Teams that have rampaged through a soft schedule and have an inflated ranking as a result will have to pay the NCAA piper come tournament time if they are not fully prepared. Teams that have taken hard knocks versus tough teams and had their rankings slip as a result will be lurking in the brackets - ready with the experience to play well when it counts.

On the flip side, a mediocre team may face one powerhouse and be especially inspired for that game, leading to a giantkiller reputation that may not really be merited. So don't start fitting any Cinderellas (Marquette), for their glass cleats yet - and don't count out any battle-tested warhorses (Stanford).

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com