Western Washington University fifth-year senior midfielder Joana Houplin has waited a long time for another women's soccer NCAA Division II Tournament berth.
But she's a much bigger part of it this time around.
Five years ago, Houplin was a true freshman on Western's last team to reach the NCAA's. The Vikings advanced to the Far West Regional final, where they lost 1-0 in overtime to rival Seattle Pacific University.
Houplin didn't play due to a torn ACL, though. Five years later, her career has come full circle.
"It's great to see and we're happy about it - just the fact they have worked hard and have given so much to the program," said WWU coach Travis Connell about five-year players Houplin and Jamie Arthurs reaching the NCAA Tournament in their final year. "It's nice to see them get rewarded."
The No. 23-ranked Vikings play No. 5 UC San Diego in the West Regional final at 12:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 16, at Auraria Field on the campus of Metro State University in Denver, Colo. Western enters the matchup as the West Region's No. 5 seed. UC San Diego is the region's No. 2 seed.
A win will make history for WWU, which hasn't advanced past the NCAA Tournament round of 16 since the Vikings became a full NCAA member in 1998.
Western's Sweet 16 berth comes on the heels of two dramatic overtime wins against Cal Poly Pomona in the first round of the tournament and another OT victory against No. 1-seeded Sonoma State University. WWU beat both teams 2-1.
"Certainly, we have to give a lot of credit to the players," Connell said. "They are very motivated and have been very disciplined. We have a good chemistry going, and we are built for the playoffs. We got a great defense and a great goal keeper, so we are in every game. They say defense wins championships, and that's really true."
Using the word great to describe Western's dominant defensive play might be an understatement.
The club has outscored opponents 46-7 this year and put together a Great Northwest Athletic Conference-record scoreless streak of 919 minutes, 29 seconds. The span included 10 straight shutouts and lasted a little over a month.
Much can be credited to Western's success - its talented defense, its strong freshman class, an ability to find viable scoring options. With a roster full of many young talents, Houplin's presence in the middle third has been invaluable.
"It's been very important," said Connell about having a veteran player like Houplin. "Joana has already graduated and is working on her master's degree. Not only is she an experienced player, she is a motivated player. She came back to have a great senior year."
And she has. Houplin has played 18 of Western's 22 games, starting nine, largely due to recovery from knee surgery and a nagging hamstring injury. In those 18 contests, the senior mid has six goals and two assists. She ranks fourth on the team in total points. Houplin managed two goals and four assists in 18 appearances last season.
"She is a very technical player," Connell said. "She is one of the most skilled players and is fantastic off the dribble. We try to isolate her on the wing and have her beat players one on one. She is really evolving every game."
Houplin's sixth goal came on a penalty kick in the ninth minute of Western's second-round NCAA match against Sonoma State.
Her speed and work rate has also benefitted WWU on the defensive end.
"She is so fast," Connell said. "When we have Catherine (Miles) and her up top, they can put a lot of pressure on the ball when they're on defense. The other way you can play defense is keeping possession of the ball. She is a great technical player. That's another quality she has."
Beating UC San Diego will be a tough task, but Connell believes WWU has a strong chance to top the Tritons, win one more and advance to the NCAA Tournament's final four.
"We certainly have as good of a chance as anyone else to advance (to the national semis),"Connell said. "One of our strengths is that we have been in four elimination games already with the conference tournament games. We know what that is like and know how to handle it. (UCSDU) has only played one tournament game. I think a lot of it will come down to who can finish their chances. Both us and UC San Diego have fantastic defenses."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
NCAA DIVISON II TOURNAMENT
West Regional Final
WWU vs. UC San Diego (at Auraria Field in Denver, Colo.), 12:30 p.m.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.