Creighton’s soccer team was in its early stages of development when the Bluejays faced off against Akron early this season.
The teams played to a 1-1 tie in Omaha on Aug. 31. The match was the second of the season for both teams, and the Bluejays in particular were trying to find their way as they were in the process of replacing seven starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team.
“I looked back on our starting lineup for that game, and we now have seven players that are playing in different positions,” Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich said. “I think we are a better team now than we were three months ago.”
Creighton gets a chance to prove that Sunday when the eighth-ranked Bluejays play at top-ranked Akron in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The winner of the 3:30 p.m. match at First Energy Stadium will move on to the quarterfinals.
Bolowich’s confidence in his team has grown during the 12-match unbeaten streak Creighton has built to position itself for a chance to get back to the elite eight. The Bluejays have run off 11 straight wins after starting the streak with a tie against Drake.
Akron carries an even more impressive streak into the match. The Zips have won 15 straight and are unbeaten in their last 16 matches. Bolowich said one glance at the videotape shows him that Akron is playing at a high level.
“They’re very good technically, they can break pressure and they don’t give you easy looks,” he said. “They make you work for your chances. If you get them.”
Akron leads the nation in shutouts with 16. The Zips have kept six opponents from getting a single shot on goal.
“They’re also keeping the pace up with their speed of play and ball movement,” Bolowich said. “They do a good job of getting into gaps and spaces.”
In practice this week, the Bluejays have worked on tightening those gaps in their defense.
“Akron just waits for that moment when you open up or someone makes a misstep,” Bolowich said. “They create a lot of opportunities that way.”
During their winning streak, the Zips have outscored opponents 36-2.
“We know they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Creighton goalkeeper Jeff Gal said. “But I think this game will show how hard we’ve been working and how far we’ve come since the start of the season.
“If we come out and play as we did this past week, I think we’ll be fine.”
Creighton earned its spot in Sunday’s match with a 4-2 second-round win over Washington. The Bluejays notched a season-high goal total against the Huskies, and they’ve scored 11 goals in their last four matches.
Bolowich did a lot of experimenting with lineups early in the season. That resulted in some growing pains but ultimately has helped this team grow as the season progressed.
“We have a lot of different people in different spots now,” midfielder Zach Barnes said. “Coach did a lot of moving players around to see how they would mesh. Guys have found their roles, and we’ve shown a lot of progress.”
Barnes said the Bluejays go into the game with a lot to prove. The first meeting between the teams ended with a tad of controversy, as the Zips had what would have been the winning goal in overtime disallowed by an offside call.
The Akron side said the videotape showed the official blew the call.
“I know some people said they got the better of us in that game,” Barnes said. “I thought we played well, especially since that was only our second game. We were working on a lot of different things back then.
“Now, we’re playing more as a collective unit. We’re playing well now, and that first game is irrelevant right now. It’s do-or-die for everybody. We just have to go out and play our game and we’ll be fine.”
NOTES: The winner of Sunday’s match advances to the quarterfinals against either Connecticut or New Mexico. … Creighton is 1-1-1 against teams ranked in the top 25 this season. … Akron leads the series 1-0-1, having defeated Creighton 1-0 in 2010. … This will be the Zips’ fifth straight appearance in the third round, while Creighton will be playing in its second straight third-round match.
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com; twitter.com/PivOWH