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Gonzaga University Athletics

Gonzaga women’s soccer looks to continue NCAA Tournament run against UC Irvine

Gonzaga forward Giana Riley (5) controls the ball against Idaho midfielder Jayd Sprague (24) in First Round of the Women’s NCAA Soccer Tournament held at Luger Field on Sat. Nov. 11, 2023 in Spokane.  (James Snook/The Spokesman-Review)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

The Gonzaga Bulldogs’ 2023 women’s soccer season has been about breaking records and bucking trends.

After winning their first NCAA Tournament game in program history – a 1-0 victory over Idaho last week – the Zags (14-3-2) are headed on the road for their round-of-32 matchup.

It is the program’s second appearance in the tourney after losing a first-round contest to USC in 2005.

“It’s so exciting,” senior midfielder Chelsea Le said. “I mean, this is everything we’ve dreamed of, everything we’ve worked for. It just feels good knowing that we’ve made, this is exactly the position we want to be in.”

They face the UC Irvine Anteaters (9-7-6) at Hibner Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, at 1:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN+.

The Zags have lost six previous games against UC Irvine, with the meeting in 2014 – a 3-0 Anteater victory – the most recent result.

A meeting between GU and UC Irvine in the second round of the tournament would have looked implausible before the season.

The Zags were projected to finish fourth in the West Coast Conference and the Anteaters were tabbed as the third-best team in the Big West.

“Some people would have said that they’re surprised,” junior goalie Lauren Towne said. “Knowing the group that we were coming in with this year, and knowing the goals that we set and exceeding them – I just feel very, very lucky to be with this group. And it’s been fun. And I’m glad that the ride is still going.”

Under seventh-year head coach Chris Watkins, the Bulldogs are 9-0-0 against Big West foes, but UC Irvine is coming off an historic result. The Anteaters knocked off No. 1 UCLA last week 1-0 en route to this meeting with the Bulldogs, even though they aren’t ranked and their RPI is 151.

Watkins said the result is not all surprising, which goes against conventional thinking after the upset. He said the Anteaters just have a lot of talent on the roster.

“In name and conference, they don’t stand out,” he said. “But in reality, they were a Sweet 16 team last year and three years in a row, they’ve upset a high seed in the first round.”

They became just the second team to knock off a No. 1 seed in the first round, all while playing a player down for the final 15-plus minutes.

“They have our full attention, there’s no doubt about that,” Watkins said. “They have players on their roster who have won five NCAA Tournament games. We have a ton of players, 31, who have won one (tourney game), and it’s our goal to win two.”

Those 31 have a week of pre-NCAA Tournament training under their belts, so the move this week is to do a lot of what they did last week and not alter practice schedules due to the magnitude of the matchup.

Towne said the most important part of the process at this point is just managing bodies, keeping players fresh for the final stretch.

“We’re being really cognizant of that,” she said.

Watkins confirmed that, saying he doesn’t want to work too hard, even if they are flying around the field in the middle of November for the first time.

According to Towne, the energy at practice hasn’t skipped a beat after more than 1,700 minutes of soccer this season.

For the second round, the Bulldogs will head to a neutral field halfway across the country. But the Zags don’t see it any differently than other road trips.

“Gratitude helps us to see it not so much as a pressure situation, but just lucky to go out and play the game that we love,” Towne said.

Le said since the game a week ago was their first tournament game and now this is their first tournament game on the road, it adds natural intrigue, but not quite pressure.

“The game against Idaho, it did just feel like there was extra energy, extra weight to that game, we knew it was loser-out,” Le said.

A lot of the messaging comes from the mindset Watkins implores his players to have – most of which have helped lead to program-altering strides.

Some are obvious, such as making it further in the NCAA Tournament than before, and some are culture-driven, things behind the scenes that propel the program to new heights.

After setting the team’s attendance record on Saturday with 1,874 people in the stands, Watkins felt that building and newfound energy radiating from the community.

A photo captured the moment as the Zags were standing for the national anthem and a conglomerate of fans could be seen in the background.

It’s a photo that won’t soon be forgotten for the players and the coaching staff as they continue their postseason journey.

“I’m so glad someone took a picture of it because, for me, to see them and what they earned and to be a little part of it, and to see all the fans who came in, chose to be there,” Watkins said.

“The ladies played so well and worked so hard. It was a great representative. We got a great picture to kind of go down memory lane.”

“It is something I am going to remember for sure,” Towne said.