Miners prime for deep run in conference tournament

Junior+midfielder+Angela+Cutaia+leads+the+team+in+goals+and+is+second+in+assist.+The+Miners+come+into+the+C-USA+tournament+with+the+longest+unbeaten+streak+at+seven+games.+

Michaela Roman

Junior midfielder Angela Cutaia leads the team in goals and is second in assist. The Miners come into the C-USA tournament with the longest unbeaten streak at seven games.

Luis Gonzalez, Copy Editor

The UTEP women’s soccer team is in Charlotte, NC, preparing to take on Louisiana Tech University in the first of what they hope will be three matches in the 2014 Conference USA women’s soccer tournament. After finishing the regular season with a tie on the road against Old Dominion, the Miners’ 20 points were good enough to place third in the regular season standings.

UTEP visited Old Dominion with a spot in the post season already clinched, but needing a victory to secure second place. The hosting Monarchs were in desperate need of a win that would put them among the top eight. The Miners came out strong controlling the first half completely, outshooting its opponent 7-1, but failing to beat a stingy Old Dominion defense. The Monarchs responded in the second half, but Miner goalkeeper Sarah Dilling turned away all opportunities. The tie was the third of the year for coach Kevin Cross’ team and allowed Rice to surpass the Miners in the standings.

“We had a tough battle at ODU,” Cross said. “I appreciate the team’s efforts.”

THE TOURNAMENT

Since its establishment in 1995, Conference USA has used a conference tournament to award its automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. This year will be the fourth time the tournament is hosted at Transamerica Field, home of the Charlotte 49ers, and first time since it was there in back-to-back years in 2002 and 2003.

Charlotte was second in attendance throughout the regular season, averaging over 550 fans per game. Only Middle Tennessee averaged more, and UTEP barely trailed the 49ers with an average of 540 per game.

Of the 14 teams in the conference, the best eight after 10 regular season games qualify into the single-elimination tournament. The quarterfinals will begin on Thursday, Nov. 6, followed by the semifinals on Friday, Nov. 7 and the nationally televised championship game on Saturday, Nov. 8.

Nine different schools have lifted the winner’s cup at the conference tournament championship over the years, with the now Mountain West Conference member Colorado College being the most recent winners. Memphis, now a member of the American Athletic Conference, is the winningest program in the tournament’s history with five consecutive wins from 2007-2011.

UTEP has reached the championship game on two occasions–losing both–the most recent in 2011 against Memphis in double overtime. This year will be the seventh time UTEP has qualified for the tournament since joining Conference USA in 2005. The Miners return to the tournament for a second-consecutive year after missing out in 2011. Last year’s post-season run was short-lived after the Miners lost to East Carolina in their first game of the tournament.

THE FIELD

Seven other teams besides UTEP are making the trip to Charlotte for this weekend’s festivities. Qualifying ahead of the Miners were the Rice Owls, in second place, and regular season champions North Texas. The Miners faced both teams at University Field, losing a close contest against North Texas and handing Rice one of its two losses of the season.

“We had an excellent season, we beat number two and nearly beat number one,” Cross said. “We were very close to winning that game versus North Texas.”

In the fourth, fifth and sixth spots are three teams with identical conference records and points. The host Charlotte, Middle Tennessee and UTEP’s opponent Louisiana Tech all finished with a 5-4-1 record and 16 points. They are seeded in that order due to their head-to-head matchups.

Western Kentucky and Marshall round out the field of this year’s conference tournament.

Among the eight teams that will be in Charlotte this weekend, only two have won it previously. The 49ers won it twice in the ‘90s, and Rice won in 2005, when they were the hosts and beat UTEP 3-0.

THE MATCHUP

By finishing third in the regular season, the Miners will face the sixth seed in Louisiana Tech. They also avoid a potential meeting with North Texas until the championship game. Louisiana Tech is one of the three teams UTEP did not face in the regular season–the host Charlotte and the winless Southern Miss are the other two.

It will be just the second time these two schools meet. Last year, UTEP traveled to Louisiana and lost by a score of 3-0.

“We have extra motivation to make up for that game last year,” Cross said. “We are excited to play them, but know they will be very good.”

The match up pins two of the hottest teams in the conference at the moment. Both UTEP and Louisiana Tech come in with the first and second-longest unbeaten streaks. The Miners finished the season with seven straight games without a defeat, their last loss being over a month ago. Louisiana Tech has not lost in its last four contests, with their final three matches being wins.

The Bulldogs were strongest at home, but struggled on the road. In fact, the last time they were away, at Charlotte, they were shutout en route to a 3-0 defeat. The Bulldogs only won one conference game on the road and among its defeats were a tight 1-0 against North Texas and a lopsided 6-0 against Rice.

On Thursday afternoon, the UTEP women’s soccer team faces its most important test to date with the mission of adding to one of its best seasons in the program’s history. Aware of the challenges at hand, the Miners seem as confident as ever in their abilities as they look to make history and win their first championship, which would qualify them to the national tournament for a second time.

“I really believe in UTEP soccer! I have complete confidence that we can beat anyone in this tournament when we play our best soccer,” Cross said. “We will have to be at our best though to win against these tough schools.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected]