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2008 season full of upsets

Sometimes you see a score and have to read it twice, just to make sure you didn't transpose the numbers in your mind.

Columbia 3, Santa Barbara 1.

University of Missouri-Kansas City 1, Creighton 0.

Dartmouth 4, Indiana 0.

That kind of double take is a sign of a true upset.

This year, like every other, already has had its share of surprising outcomes. Just this past weekend, North Carolina State shut out No. 13 Boston College 2-0, and Tulsa trounced No. 6 Southern Methodist 4-1. And usually in these kinds of contests, we focus on the losing teams, not the victorious underdogs.

The truth is, while an upset loss usually doesn't destroy a season (NCAA tournament aside), the effects of an unexpected win can provide the momentum a struggling team needs.

"For the team, it's a huge confidence boost," UMKC goalkeeper Ken Cooper said after the win over then-No. 3 Creighton on Sept. 13. "It just proves that if we play anybody, we can beat anybody. … The energy we have as a team now is just unbelievable. Yesterday at practice, everyone was just on fire -- the whole mentality changed."

Such self-assurance can make all the difference when games often are decided by a momentary lapse. It's also something only experience can convey.

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Coaches can repeatedly tell their teams they have the ability to win. Players can replay losses in their minds or on video, watching for those moments when a win was possible. But none of that drives the point home like an impressive victory.

"You start thinking, 'I can do things that maybe the average person might not think that I can do,'" said Columbia forward Bayo Adafin, who scored all three goals in the Lions' Sept. 14 victory over the Gauchos. "I mean, the average person wouldn't have thought coming into that game [against Santa Barbara] that Columbia was going to win 3-1, and we proved everyone wrong. It really changes the mindset."

While an upset win can be huge, it's what happens afterward that is most likely to define a team, something Lions coach Leo Chappel hammered home to his players before their next game against La Salle.

"I said, 'This is the biggest game of the year. We can't have a letdown,'" Chappel recalled. "It was all us in overtime [Columbia scored with less than a minute remaining in the second overtime for the 2-1 win]. It was a great result. A tie would have been a letdown for sure."

UMKC coach Rick Benben echoed that sentiment. His team has had its share of upset wins over the years. The Kangaroos opened this season on a high note, playing the University of Illinois-Chicago to a 2-2 draw and besting Creighton a week and a half later.

"We've beaten a number of top-10 teams [over the years], and what we talk about with the kids is you need to do it every game," Benben said. "It's great to beat Creighton, and it's given us a lot of really nice publicity and notoriety, but they understand you have to play at a high level every game. It starts with that, and hopefully, you can get the results to go with that."

An upset isn't a cure-all, as both Columbia and UMKC have found out firsthand. The Lions fell to Quinnipiac and Long Island University (both in double overtime) over the weekend, while the Kangaroos have gone 1-2 since defeating the Bluejays.

It's unlikely we'll see Columbia or UMKC make a postseason run this year (although stranger things have happened in the world of college soccer), but one thing is certain: These teams now know they can contend with the best in the country.

"This kind of win puts the idea in your head that if you work hard -- and there's still work to be done; the season's not over, but this is the starting point -- we can accomplish something hopefully," Adafin said.

Several teams that pulled off big early season wins are proof. Still, it's important to note that a team doesn't need to be struggling to pull off an upset. Sometimes, it's just underrated.

Case in point: After Dartmouth's victory over IU, the previously unranked Big Green were catapulted into the national rankings and since have climbed upward, now occupying the No. 18 spot. No. 4 St. John's wasn't on the national radar when it beat then-No. 12 Brown 1-0 and tied then-No. 2 Boston College 1-1 in the first week of September.

As we see every season, teams will continue to emerge from obscurity and surprise everyone with their success. Which ones will have staying power remains to be seen.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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