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Regular season closing with a bang

With the regular season wrapping up, it seems like a good time to reflect on the themes that piqued our interest heading into 2008 and to check out some of the surprises we've seen so far.

Re-opening the vault

Back in August, we looked at some of the stories that were likely to emerge this season.

Some stuck, some sunk.

1. Will Wake Forest repeat?

Plenty's been written on the Demon Deacons, and there's not much more to say. At 16-0-1, the team looks unbeatable. Any chance at a national title runs through this team.

2. John Kerr takes over at Duke

The Blue Devils (10-5-2) haven't been lights out, but they've gotten better as the season's gone on. Right in or on the fringe of the rankings, Duke's far beyond the tournament bubble with a No. 16 RPI ranking -- compared to the No. 52 spot the program finished with in 2007. The program may not yet be a College Cup contender, but all in all, not a bad start.

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As for Kerr's former Harvard team, the Crimson (9-4) have held their own under new coach Jamie Clark. The team is tied for the Ivy League title even after a setback at Dartmouth over the weekend.

3. Can UMass keep rolling?

Things seem to be picking up for the Minutemen (7-6-3) after winning four straight and going undefeated in their last six games, but the team certainly didn't carry last year's postseason momentum with them into 2008. UMass got on a roll late last season that took them to the national semifinals, but the Minutemen stand virtually no chance of sneaking up on anyone this time around.

That said, plenty of other underdogs have fought their way to the top. From Loyola (Md.) to UC Irvine, smaller programs are proving just as capable of contending.

4. O'Brian White goes for two

By last November, White had emerged as the clear Hermann Trophy favorite. A repeat doesn't seem likely (White has only six goals this season compared to 23 last year), but that doesn't detract from White's ability or contributions to the Huskies. Besides, the overwhelming majority of Hermann winners have taken home the award just once and gone on to have more than successful soccer careers.

All things being equal

Of course, the real focus now shifts to the impending postseason as conference tournament countdowns are well underway -- a week and counting.

Some conferences might have stronger reputations, but this year, it's been more about parity than prestige.

Look no farther than the NSCAA Top 10 for proof. Nine conferences are represented, including: the ACC (No. 1 Wake Forest and No. 5 Maryland), MAC (No. 2 Akron), Missouri Valley Conference (No. 3 Creighton), Big East (No. 4 St. John's), Big Ten (No. 6 Northwestern), Metro Atlantic (No. 7 Loyola–Maryland), Pac-10 (No. 8 Cal), Conference USA (No. 9 Tulsa) and Big West (No. 10 Davis).

However, that's according to people. When you turn the rankings over to the RPI and it's all-knowing calculations, the Big Ten dominates with three of the top eight teams, including a 9-4-2 Indiana squad at No. 1.

Sweet Home Pennsylvania

One Big Ten team not among the RPI's top eight -- or top 158, for that matter -- is Penn State, but ranked teams beware when traveling to Happy Valley: The Nittany Lions have come up big against their top opponents all season long at Jeffrey Field.

That was on full display this past week as Penn State hosted a pair of games after having played its last three contests on the road. The Nittany Lions tied No. 2 Akron 1-1 and then upset No. 17 Indiana 1-0. Heading into this past weekend, Penn State was also victorious in its last home match, having beaten then-No. 17 Ohio State 3-2 on Oct. 11.

While we're on the subject of Pennsylvania, who thought we'd be talking about the Quakers this late in the year -- or at all?

No. 23 University of Pennsylvania was one of the last undefeated teams in the country (suffering its first loss on Oct. 7). The Quakers rebounded from their only two defeats of the season (back-to-back losses to Lehigh and Columbia) by winning three straight and look to be an Ivy League front-runner after beating Brown 4-0 on Saturday. However, the team faces Princeton (5-9-1) this Saturday, and a major game looms with Penn hosting Harvard to close out the season.

That match could have significant meaning for Penn's season. Harvard, currently 21st in the RPI rankings, should have a shot at an NCAA berth either way. However, for the Quakers, currently 51st in the RPI, the game against the Crimson could make or break their season.

From here on out is what college soccer is all about.

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

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