Jamie Clark sees one striking similarity between the Creighton and Washington teams that will square off Sunday in the second round of the NCAA soccer tournament.
Clark’s Huskies have lost once in their past 12 games. The Bluejays steadied themselves after a September stumble and bring an 11-match unbeaten streak into the 5 p.m. game at Morrison Stadium.
“These are two teams that seem to have forgotten what it’s like to lose,” Clark said. “We’ve both overcome some ups and downs to really develop a habit of getting results.
“When that happens, winning becomes something that is expected.”
The winning will come to a halt for one team Sunday, while the other will stay hot as it moves on to the third round of the tournament. The season is down to the knockout round, where there are no second chances.
Teams fortunate enough to be playing in November need to remember that, Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich said.
“When you go into an event like this, the thing you don’t want to do is have regrets after it’s over,” Bolowich said. “You don’t want to come off the field saying, ‘I could have done better or I could have worked a little harder or I could have concentrated a little more.’”
Bolowich’s first Creighton team made it to the semifinals of last year’s tournament. This year’s team, with seven new starters, hit a rough spot a month into the season when the Bluejays lost three of four games.
They haven’t lost since, starting the unbeaten streak with a scoreless tie at Drake and tacking on 10 straight wins. The last two came a week ago in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and wrapped up a No. 12 seed for Creighton (15-3-2).
The seed came with a first-round bye that gave the eighth-ranked Bluejays a week of practice to prepare. Meanwhile, No. 21 Washington (13-4-3) had to face Air Force in a first-round match Thursday. With the 1-0 win, the Huskies improve to 9-1-2 in their last dozen matches.
Clark coached Creighton in 2010, guiding the team to 13 wins, including an NCAA tournament victory against New Mexico. Two months after the season ended, Washington hired Clark.
Clark’s return makes for a nice pregame storyline, but the reality is that it should have little impact on the match. Seniors Jose Gomez, Brent Kallman and Andrew Ribeiro are the only Bluejays who played for Clark. Sophomore Eric Miller, who enrolled at Creighton after graduating from high school early, was around the coach for a month before Clark left for the Northwest.
“It’s going to be nice to see Jamie; we all liked him,” Miller said. “They’re good guys, but we’re playing his team so it really doesn’t matter all that much.”
What does matter, Miller said, is maintaining focus on what is at stake. The Bluejays who have been through the tournament grind can try to prepare the first-timers, but it’s not always easy.
“It becomes a little bit of a baptism under fire,” Miller said. “You get into that first game and you realize how hard it’s going to be to get through. Our coaches do a really good job of trying to prepare us for the intensity of the games, but sometimes you have to go through it yourself.”
Bolowich is counting on the pressure his team faced down the stretch to prepare it for what it’s going to face in NCAA play. The Bluejays went into their final regular-season game at Evansville and their Valley tournament games against Drake and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville knowing that slipups could seriously impact their postseason plans.
“There was so much at stake,” Bolowich said. “We approached those games like it could be do-or-die. I think that taught some of our younger players that you have to show up, that you have to come to play.”
Clark’s team, too, faced its share of pressure-packed situations. The Huskies dropped to 4-3-1 after a 4-3 overtime loss to Brown on Sept. 21 before they got hot and turned their season around. They extended it with Thursday’s win against an Air Force team that finished the season with nine losses.
“I’m just glad to still be alive and playing,” Clark said. “The Air Force match was difficult because I think most people felt we should win. That put a little extra pressure on us, and I really didn’t want anything to keep us from moving on to this match.”
NOTES: The winner Sunday will advance to the third round to face either Michigan or fifth-seeded and No. 1-ranked Akron. ... Creighton holds a 5-2 edge in the series, but one of Washington’s wins came in NCAA play. The Huskies posted a 3-0 victory in the first round of the 2006 tournament. ... All but five of Washington’s matches this season have been decided by one goal. ... Washington and Creighton are tied for eighth nationally in shutout percentage (0.50), while the Huskies are 12th in goals-against average (0.71). The Bluejays are 16th in goals-against average (0.77). ... Creighton is 10-1 in NCAA matches at Morrison Stadium and 26-16-5 overall in tournament play. ... The Bluejays are looking for their first win against a ranked team this season. Creighton is 0-1-1 in games against Top 25 clubs.
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