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Soccer teams seek UCLA milestone

Men and women are playing in the national semifinals today, trying to secure a chance to deliver the school's 100th national title.

December 01, 2006|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Over at UCLA, Jillian Ellis' office is right next door to Jorge Salcedo's, which makes it convenient when the two Bruins soccer coaches want to talk tactics or player management or recruiting strategy.

Or how, this weekend, they each plan to earn UCLA its landmark 100th NCAA team championship -- a national first.

Today in Cary, N.C. (ESPN2, 12:30 p.m.), Ellis' Bruins women play 18-time national champion North Carolina in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

A few hours later, in St. Louis (ESPN2, 3 p.m.), where sub-freezing temperatures are being predicted, Salcedo's Bruins men play five-time champion Virginia in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

A victory by either UCLA team would put it into one of Sunday's finals with the chance to win that milestone No. 100 for the Westwood school. Because of the starting times Sunday, the women's team would have the first chance, but Salcedo is not worried about that.

"We'll somehow claim that it was on the same day, that the only reason they won it before us was because of the time difference," he said. "We'll figure out a way to get a piece of that action."

Before that, though, both teams have to get past today's semifinals, and that will not be just a matter of showing up.

The Tar Heels (25-1) have been at the pinnacle of women's soccer for a quarter-century and Coach Anson Dorrance, who led the U.S. women's national team to its 1991 world championship, will be seeking his 800th coaching victory today.

"They're not unlike us, they're a fairly young squad," Ellis said. "They've got a special player, obviously, in Heather O'Reilly. The thing about them is just the pressure they generate. They just press and press and press.

"If you turn the ball over, they're just down your throats. If you have the ball, they're chasing and hunting everything. So the onus is a little bit on us to try to keep the ball.

"I think it's a good matchup. They're athletic, we're an athletic team. It's going to be good."

The UCLA women (21-3) lost in last year's final to Portland, 4-0, and that defeat provided the impetus for this season, said Ellis, who also coaches the U.S. under-21 women's national team.

"Immediately after that game ended, I went to console my seniors and then turned to the freshmen and said, 'OK, take this as a lesson learned and now focus on next year,' " Ellis said.

They did, even beating Portland, 2-1, in this year's quarterfinals.

Three players have stood out in 2006: forward Lauren Cheney, who has set UCLA freshman records with 19 goals and eight game-winning goals, plus forward Christina DiMartino and defender Erin Hardy, both sophomores.

All three players, plus forward Danesha Adams and goalkeeper Valerie Henderson, were on the U.S. team that finished fourth at the FIFA Under-20 World Championship in Russia last summer.

The other women's semifinal pits Notre Dame (24-0-1) against Florida State (18-3-4).

The Bruins men's team (13-5-4) also faces a tough challenge today from the Cavaliers (17-3-1).

"Virginia is very, very good," said Salcedo, whose five seasons in Major League Soccer included two with the Galaxy. "Of the four teams, they probably have the best starting 11. The two guys up top are an absolute handful. [German striker Yannik] Reyering is their leading goal scorer and he's definitely someone that MLS would love to have."

Salcedo has a few standouts of his own, not least of all defender Greg Folk, playmaker Sal Zizzo, midfielder Kyle Nakazawa and forward David Estrada.

Injuries have hit the Bruins hard this season, but Salcedo said the players' "desire to keep going" has made all the difference.

"We've had so many ups and downs with injuries and guys leaving early" to turn professional, he said. "They just come back, put their heads down and work."

The other men's semifinal pits surprising UC Santa Barbara (16-7) against Wake Forest (18-3-3). At one point this season, the Gauchos were 7-6 and going nowhere, but they then went on a 9-1 streak to reach today's semifinal.

"I have to give them a great deal of credit," said UCSB Coach Tom Van Steeg, whose team lost on penalty kicks to Indiana in the 2004 final at the Home Depot Center. "They could easily have packed it in, but they didn't. They stuck together and turned things around."

By Monday, UCLA could have one or two more NCAA titles or still be stuck on 99. Either way, Ellis and Salcedo will still stop by each other's office to chat.

"We've become good friends over the past two years," Salcedo said. "She's someone that I respect, the way she sees the game and the way she analyzes games. I run things past her with no second thought."

Said Ellis: "He comes to my games and gives me input on my players. It's a very good working relationship. He's very supportive of us."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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