Such Great Heights

Jays soar into NCAA quarterfinals

Something special has happened at Morrison Stadium this fall. Back when summer was ending the Creighton men’s soccer team was expected to be very good.

Now with winter beginning – and the Jays one win away from the program’s fourth appearance in the College Cup – Creighton might be considerably better than “very good.” Creighton might be great.

That’s what we’ll find out Saturday afternoon at Morrison Stadium when the second-seeded Jays host No. 7 South Florida with a trip to college soccer’s version of the Final Four on the line. It is likely the biggest home game in program history.

Creighton has reached these heights before, making the College Cup in 1996 and 2000 and going all the way to the championship game in 2002. They’ve reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament five times in the past 11 years but what makes this run different is that it’s happening right here in Omaha.

The Jays’ previous College Cup teams all had to go on the road at some point to reach the national semifinals. The 1996 team went on a remarkable road run, beating three ranked teams before losing out to eventual national champion St. John’s. The 2000 squad did even better, winning four straight against ranked teams before Connecticut stopped them in the national title game. In 2002, Creighton hosted the opening round game at home but finished with three road games.

First-year coach Elmar Bolowich was brought in to help Creighton improve that already storied soccer tradition. He shocked the soccer community last spring when he left a North Carolina program that had been to three straight College Cups for a school that hadn’t been to one in nine years. The Tarheel team he left behind earned the No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament. The Bluejay team he took over earned the No. 2 seed on the strength of one of the most dominating regular seasons in program history.

Creighton went 18-2-0 on their way to winning the Missouri Valley Conference “double,” taking home both the regular season and conference tournament titles. The Jays allowed only four goals all season and lead the country in goals against average (.019), save percentage (.933) and shutout percentage (.810). Ten of Creighton’s 11 starters earned conference awards, led by Brian Holt (MVC Goalkeeper of the Year), Andrew Duran (MVC Defender of the Year), and Ethan Finlay (MVC Player of the Year). Finlay became the first player in Creighton history to win that award twice. The coaches also picked up Staff of the Year honors in the MVC as well.

But through all the awards and accolades, Saturday’s match is the best testament to what Creighton has achieved in year one under Bolowich. The game is the first NCAA quarterfinal Creighton has ever hosted and only the second match to be played at Morrison Stadium in December. There was only a sliver of room for improvement based on what Creighton soccer had accomplished in the past and this year’s squad found it.

Now the Jays get to play the biggest game of their season at home where they have won 14 straight games. Since opening in 2003, Creighton is 9-1-0 in NCAA tournament games at Morrison Stadium and 19-2-1 against top 25 teams. USF enters the game ranked No. 12 and fresh off an upset of No. 1 New Mexico.

“It’s another game in the process,” Bolowich said following Creighton’s 2-1 third round win over UC-Santa Barbara last week. “We’re alive and preparing and training for the upcoming game. We have to again find a way to survive and advance.”

Survive and advance. It doesn’t seem like the strategy of a team with Creighton’s track record this season but Bolowich has been here before. He knows how thin the margin for error is when chasing a national title. He won one with North Carolina in 2001 and now he’s in the running for another.

This run originated in Omaha. It’s a new home for Bolowich but he doesn’t have to leave home to get there and that’s important.

Special things have been happening at Morrison Stadium all season but soccer frequently flies under radar in football-mad Nebraska.

That’s the best thing about Saturday’s match: There’s still time to get on the bandwagon.

<i>Creighton takes on South Florida in the NCAA tournament Saturday, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. at Morrison Stadium, 17th and Cass. Tickets and live streaming video of the match are available at gocreighton.com.</i>

posted at 06:30 pm
on Monday, November 28th, 2011

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