Monmouth building on last season's disappointment
Confidence is high for the Monmouth men's soccer team.
The Hawks made history this week, earning the school's first-ever top-10 national ranking in any sport. (The NSCAA poll has them at No. 10, while Soccer America has them a notch higher at No. 9.) Monmouth is undefeated heading into Northeast Conference play at 8-0, the program's best start ever.
As goalkeeper Bryan Meredith summed it up, "You couldn't ask for much better."
"It's pretty big for our program and our university," Meredith added. "We're a pretty small university, and because we're not really known across the country as a big-time soccer program, to get this kind of recognition, especially this early in the year, is pretty big for us. I think getting our name out there will do a lot for our program and our school."
But don't confuse self-assurance with cockiness. After all, Monmouth knows what it means to have its bubble burst.
The Hawks went 12-3-4 last season and won their fourth-straight NEC regular-season conference title. But Monmouth was upset by Mount St. Mary's in the opening round of the NEC tournament, losing in a shootout. Mount St. Mary's lost to Fairleigh Dickson University in the final, and FDU punched the conference's lone ticket to the NCAA tournament.
"We learned from a lot of things," junior forward Ryan Kinne said. "We had a good year last year, but after we lost in the conference tournament and didn't get an at-large bid, the hunger on our team is enormous."
The tournament loss might have been just what the team needed to push it that extra inch toward achieving what coach Rob McCourt says has been one of his biggest goals since taking over the program six seasons ago -- positioning the team to be a front-runner for receiving an at-large bid.
"Sometimes we feel like it still comes down to the conference tournament, and we don't want to have to rely on that conference tournament every year," McCourt said. "We want to be a team that's getting good enough national recognition that even if we have a hiccup in the conference tournament, we're still able to get a bid."
Doing well in nonconference play has been the key to grabbing that much-needed attention.
"Being from a small school and a small conference, to be able to get an at-large bid, I think you almost have to have a start like this to open up the eyes of the committee," McCourt said. "I think we've made a good case for it at this stage."
But the Hawks also realize they're only at Stage 1. Although this is the first time the team has ever had a top-10 ranking, the players know it'll be another long offseason if that's the only thing they can point to at the end of the year.
"This year, our main goal is to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament," Kinne said. "Anything less than that would be disappointing."
Only two other teams at the Division I level are still perfect. The way Akron is playing, the Zips could easily run the table in the regular season and are obviously poised to have postseason success, as well. Akron is 7-0 and leads the nation is shutout percentage and goals-against and is fourth in scoring offense.
Sliding under the radar at No. 18 is the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (9-0). The Retrievers lead the nation with 27 goals, while freshman goalkeeper Phil Saunders has been almost impenetrable. Saunders is fifth in the nation in save percentage (.919) and eighth in the nation in goals-against (.34).
Upset upon upset
Although the aforementioned have been unbeatable, last week was rough for many ranked teams.
Maryland took down North Carolina 1-0 and took over the Tar Heels' ranking as the Terrapins jumped to No. 2 and UNC fell to the No. 5 spot. Cal dropped two spots to No. 7 after losing 2-1 to New Mexico. South Florida went from No. 3 to No. 6 after the Bulls were handed their first loss in 2009, a 1-0 overtime defeat at West Virginia.
The biggest drop came after unranked Notre Dame exploded with four goals in the second half to down Louisville 4-0. The Cardinals were still feeling the effects from the loss days later as they fell from ninth to 17th.
Big weekend on the West Coast
For the second weekend in a row, Harder Stadium will play host to one of the biggest games in the country, as No. 11 UC Santa Barbara hosts No. 9 Indiana on Friday at 11 p.m. ET.
The Gauchos took down Indiana 2-1 last season in Bloomington, but it's safe to say no one at UCSB has forgotten the crushing loss IU handed Santa Barbara in the 2004 national championship game. That's not the kind of loss that one game can just erase. For their part, the Hoosiers hate to lose on their home field and no doubt want to show UCSB what that feels like.
Although it might not be garnering the national attention, a few hours north and a few hours earlier, No. 7 Cal and No. 20 Stanford will be battling it out for Bay Area bragging rights as well as Pac-10 position. The two face off at 7 p.m. ET.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.