In Ashleigh Plumptre’s first season at USC, the Trojans finished the regular season 14-4-1, entered the NCAA women’s soccer playoffs as a No. 2 seed and beat Texas A&M in the second round on their way to winning the national title in San José.
That was 2016. Plumptre, now a senior, is struck by how similar this fall has been: USC finished the regular season with the same record, entered the postseason as a No. 2 seed and beat Texas A&M in the second round.
And guess where next month’s national title game will be played.
“It’s almost come around full circle,” she said Tuesday. “It’s strange how it just kind of replicated.”
Things get tough now because to get back to San José, the ninth-ranked Trojans (17-4-1) have to get past No. 2 North Carolina (22-1-1) in Friday’s tournament quarterfinal in Chapel Hill, N.C.
No. 7 UCLA (17-4-1) also will be hoping for deja vu Friday when it plays defending champion Florida State (18-5-0) in Tallahassee, Fla. UCLA not only beat the sixth-ranked Seminoles this season, but also beat them in the 2013 championship game, when the Bruins won their only national title in coach Amanda Cromwell’s first season.
In other quarterfinals Friday, top-ranked Stanford will host No. 4 Brigham Young and unranked Washington State will play at No. 5 South Carolina.
UCLA is playing in the quarterfinals for the third consecutive postseason and the fifth time in seven seasons under Cromwell. Yet, for all that success, Cromwell says her team has quite a bit of unfinished business since it hasn’t finished a year with a victory since 2013.
“This team is really hungry,” she said. “We’ve kind of come up short the last couple of years and we want to right the ship.”
The Bruins lost to North Carolina on penalty kicks in last year’s quarterfinals and to Stanford in the 2017 title game. That sends senior midfielder Jessie Fleming, a two-time semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy — soccer’s version of football’s Heisman — into Friday’s game still searching for her first national title.
Cromwell calls Fleming “one of the best players that I’ll ever coach in my career,” which is high praise since two starters on the 2018 World Cup champion U.S. national team played for Cromwell at UCLA.
The Bruins carried a lot of momentum with them on Tuesday’s flight to Florida, riding an eight-game winning streak and with 11 victories in their last 12 games. They’ve also scored 11 times in three postseason victories and 15 times in their last four games, including their Pac-12 Conference finale with USC.
The Trojans, by comparison, stumbled into the playoffs, losing three of their final six conference games. But they’ve gotten five goals and two assists from freshman forward Penelope Hocking in their three playoff victories. Hocking’s 17 goals are two better than senior Tara McKeown, also a MAC Hermann semifinalist after a season in which she had 15 goals and seven assists.
North Carolina leads the nation with 19 shutouts in 24 games and is unbeaten in 11 games at home. The Tar Heels have won a record 21 national titles — only one other school has as many as three — under coach Anson Dorrance, although they have advanced past the quarterfinals only once since their last title, in 2012.
The Trojans, like the Bruins, come into their quarterfinal hungry. USC hasn’t lost a playoff game in regulation since 2015, getting eliminated the last two seasons on penalty kicks.
“North Carolina is [an] elite team and we’d like to consider ourselves to be one of those teams that, year in and year out, you see there,” USC coach Keidane McAlpine said.
Plumptre agrees, though she isn’t so sure the rest of the nation knows that yet, something she said works to USC’s advantage.
“USC, we’re underdogs,” she said. “We were underdogs when we won the national championship and we have been ever since. So sometimes teams think that they can walk all over us.”
The center back, who has three friends from England on the North Carolina team, hopes the Tar Heels think that too. Because if they do, she’s confident she’ll be heading back to San José with a chance to end her USC career the way she began it.