HOOVER, Ala. — The College Cup stage looks exactly the same:
A vibrant green pitch in a picturesque part of this Birmingham, Ala., suburb.
A 10,000-seat minor league baseball park painstakingly transformed into a 13,000-seat showcase for soccer.
Creighton was the first team to hold its 30-minute walkthrough Thursday morning at Regions Park, site of the NCAA College Cup for a second straight year. The Missouri Valley champions again soaked up the setting, ambling slowly across the field, snapping pictures on their cell phones.
“It’s just two more games now,” Creighton senior midfielder Jose Gomez said after the walkthrough. “If you can find a way to play good and perform and get the right amount of luck, you know good things are going to happen in the end.”
Creighton continues its remarkable push to capture the NCAA championship on Friday, when the Bluejays battle Indiana in the national semifinals. That game follows a showdown between Maryland and Georgetown, with Friday’s winners advancing to Sunday’s College Cup championship.
For Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich and the handful of Bluejays who made it to Alabama a year ago, these surroundings felt plenty familiar.
The Bluejays not only are making back-to-back College Cup appearances for the first time in program history, they are the only team in Hoover this week to earn a return trip to college soccer’s final four. It’s also the first time in 12 years that the same city hosted the College Cup on back-to-back years.
Hardly. The destination ended up being the same this year for Creighton, but the journey was very different.
In 2011, Bolowich’s first year in Omaha, the Bluejays put together one of the best seasons in program history. Returning to the College Cup for the first time in nine years, Creighton arrived at Regions Park last December with a 21-2-0 record. Boasting one of the stingiest defenses in NCAA history, the Bluejays enjoyed the kind of season last year that was supposed to culminate with a trip to the final four.
In 2012, there were lots of times throughout the regular season — and plenty of moments during the NCAA tournament — when the Bluejays’ chances of making the College Cup appeared slim.
“Most people think we didn’t have a chance to make it here this year,” Gomez said. “But we’ve just been able to prove them wrong — winning on the road, winning against tough opponents. Being able to do that just makes getting here feel that much better. It’s a great feeling.”
Yes, Creighton enters Friday’s game against Indiana riding the momentum of a 14-match unbeaten streak (12-0-2). But that followed a 5-3-2 start. And while the 2011 Bluejays squad made the final four by winning three NCAA tournament games at home, this year’s team had to hit the road to take down No. 1 Akron and a fourth-seeded Connecticut squad that hadn’t lost a home match since 2009.
Despite being outshot 31-11 by Akron, the Bluejays worked out a 1-1 double-overtime tie, then eliminated the Zips on penalty kicks. At UConn, the Huskies outshot Creighton 10-2 in the second half of a scoreless game before Christian Blandon netted the winner with 90 seconds to go in regulation.
“This year, it is different,” Bolowich said. “We’ve had to grow, we’ve had to come together, and we’ve had to find our stride. And those things all happened much earlier for us in 2011. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something special this year, and now we’re at a point where we can say, ‘OK, we’ve weathered the storm.’ We’re still alive, and I think some of the confidence we’ve been able to build up is an important factor.
“Our players believe. They believe they can win here.”
The semifinal between Maryland and Georgetown will match two of the NCAA’s most consistent clubs. The game between Creighton and Indiana, on the other hand, features two of the NCAA tournament’s most surprising teams.
Indiana stumbled into the postseason after a 1-3-1 stretch, punctuated by a 2-1 loss against Michigan State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. After opening the NCAAs with a 4-1 home win over Xavier, the Hoosiers hit the road to Notre Dame and took down the top-seeded Fighting Irish 2-1 in double overtime. That set the stage for another tall road test at North Carolina, the defending national champs. But a goal by Eriq Zavaleta in the 60th minute lifted Indiana to a 1-0 victory, moving the Hoosiers on to Hoover and ending the Tar Heels’ 40-match home win streak.
“I think there’s lots of good momentum for both of our groups,” said Indiana coach Todd Yeagley. “The paths have been similar, and there are a lot of similarities between our two teams. I think that’s going to make for a great matchup on Friday.”
Creighton and Indiana have shown an impressive flair for bucking the odds on the way to the College Cup. That makes trying to predict what’s going to happen in Friday’s game even tougher, Yeagley said.
And while Indiana is back in the final four for the first time since 2004, it’s a significant stretch to assume the Bluejays have an edge because they played in last year’s College Cup.
After Creighton suffered its penalty-kick loss against Charlotte last year, the Bluejays lost all but four starters — and many of their most important standouts — from their 2011 roster.
“There is always a different dynamic to every team,” Bolowich said. “You can never say, ‘This is what it was then, so this is what it will be now.’ So we just have to stay in the moment. We just have to go about our business here, play a good game, and hopefully we will come out on the winning end of it.”
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