NCAA TOURNAMENT NOTEBOOK

Buckeyes overcome adversity to advance

November 25, 2008
Burns OrtizBy Maria Burns Ortiz
(Archive)

Some losses are easier to get over than others.

Other / Alissa ClendenenOhio State coach John Bluem drew a hard line by suspending six players.

There are the hard-fought battles -- when a team might be bothered by the result but the players can at least walk off the field knowing they gave their all. No one worries about those teams bouncing back.

Then, there are the kind of games that haunt programs. The what-ifs and "if only"s echo throughout the offseason, and missed opportunities mentally play out over and over.

Ohio State didn't want to go out that way, and luckily for the Buckeyes, they survived (perhaps just barely) the first round of the NCAA tournament, beating Oakland 4-3 in a shootout Saturday after battling to a scoreless draw.

It provided a positive ending to a game that easily could have been season-ending.

On Friday, Ohio State coach John Bluem announced that six players -- including the team's three captains, seniors Tim Gabel, Danny Irizarry and Geoff Marsh -- had been suspended for a violation of "team rules." Senior Patrick Roan and sophomores Matt Gold and Sam Scales also were suspended, leaving the team without half a dozen of its regular starters.

Although the situation could be viewed as a blemish on the Big Ten program that finished last year as national runner-up, there's something commendable about the accountability to which Bluem holds his team and the risks he's willing to take to enforce it.

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The Buckeyes were forced to rely on players who had limited -- if any -- experience in a starting role, let alone a starting-in-the-NCAA-tournament role.

"We feel very strongly about the quality of our players," Bluem said after the game. "For our reserve players who didn't get to play much this season, they relished that opportunity. They took advantage of it. I'm so proud of them I can't even tell you."

At this point in the season, such a victory can do more than inspire pride. It can be just the catalyst a team needs to power through the tournament.

Bluem's team will need every advantage as it heads to Akron on Tuesday.

In Saturday's game, it didn't hurt OSU that Oakland was without its regular goalkeeper -- Steve Clark, who received a red card in the Summit League tournament championship -- leaving redshirt freshman Mitch Hildebrandt to make his first start. Hildebrandt had three saves in holding Ohio State scoreless, but was edged out in the end.

Bluem said the suspended players will be eligible for selection for the team's second-round game against Akron.

Akron and Ohio State faced each other in the last game of the regular season, with the Zips coming away with a 4-3 win.

As close as they come

Ohio State-Oakland wasn't the only game that came down to the wire. Of the weekend's 16 games, 11 were decided by a single goal or by penalty kicks.

In a flurry of 1-0 contests, Connecticut took down Fairfield, George Mason knocked out Penn, Tulsa beat UMKC, Boston University defeated Fairleigh Dickinson and Cal Poly surprised UCLA.

The University of Illinois-Chicago edged Dayton 3-1 in a shootout, and Northwestern took out Loyola-Chicago 4-1 in PKs.

Elsewhere, St. Louis-Drake and Harvard-UMass both went to double overtime, with St. Louis and Harvard emerging victorious. But Jacksonville pulled off the biggest upset of the weekend as the Dolphins came up with a 4-3 overtime win against Louisville.

Expected and unexpected

The real "upsets" won't begin until seeded teams start getting knocked out, but there were certainly some surprises over the weekend.

At 127, Jacksonville's RPI was almost 10 times Louisville's (13), but none of that mattered Friday. Just as impressive was the way the Dolphins had to battle back after trailing 2-1 at the half. There's reason for cautious optimism in Jacksonville as the team travels to play a North Carolina squad that has lost five straight.

UNC-Greensboro was also mentioned last week as a team that squeezed in with an automatic bid, and the Spartans are making the most of it. Just the sixth team in history to make the NCAA tournament with a sub-.500 record, UNC-Greensboro shut out Duke 2-0 to advance to the second round. The team heads to Maryland to play ninth-seeded Loyola College, a team that has lost just one game all season. On paper, this looks like a no-brainer, but using that logic, the Spartans shouldn't be here at all. The question is: How far can the momentum carry them?

Other outcomes weren't as shocking.

Cal, which closed out the regular season at No. 11 in the NSCAA poll, shut out neighboring San Francisco 3-0. The Bears advance to face UC Santa Barbara in what could be the best West Coast matchup of the tournament.

UC Davis rolled past Denver 4-0. The Aggies led just 1-0 at the half, but they pulled away after the break, thanks in part to Chris Leer, who had two second-half goals. Davis looks to continue its winning ways as the team travels to 11th-seeded Michigan. The road hasn't been extremely kind to the Aggies this season. All four losses have come away from Aggie Soccer Stadium. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have never lost a home game in the NCAA tournament.

Who will survive the next round is anybody's guess. If the opening games have shown us anything, it's that no one should be underestimated and everybody has a chance.

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