As the Utah women's soccer players and coaches gathered at the Burbidge Center Monday afternoon, there was some doubt as to whether the Utes would even be invited to the NCAA Tournament. The Utes had lost in the second round of the Mountain West Conference tournament last week and were hoping for one of the 34 at-large berths in the tourney.
The Utes were confident enough that they were dressed in their soccer gear, ready to practice after the announcement show on ESPN News. When their name appeared on the screen halfway through the show, there were some shrieks and squeals of delight and hugs all around.
"I'm so unbelievably excited," said Kim Lloyd, the only senior on the team. "I've never been so happy to get out and practice before."
The Utes were especially excited to find out they would be one of the 16 hosts of the regionals Thursday at Ute Field.
The No. 22-ranked Utes (14-6-1) will take on Arizona (9-7-3) at 7 p.m. after the No. 14-ranked Cougars (15-2-3) play Weber State (14-4-1) at 4:30 p.m. The winners will play Saturday at 1 p.m. with that winner advancing to the Sweet 16 next week.
"It's always one of our goals every year to make the NCAA tournament," said Ute coach Rich Manning said. "We're happy to be in with a shot to advance."
While some of Manning's players were surprised to get an invitation, Manning wasn't. He was pleasantly surprised to be one of the host schools.
"I had a feeling that with Weber getting in and BYU and us probably getting in, that it would be either here or Provo," Manning said. "Why it's us and not Provo, I have no idea. We're in it, that's the most important thing and we want to go as far as we can."
At the time Manning wasn't aware that the Cougars couldn't host because of a flooded field, but he was certainly thrilled to be able to host the NCAA first and second rounds for the second time in three years.
"We're very happy to be able to play in front of the local fans and get a chance to show our skills on our home field," Manning said. "We haven't been home for a long time, about four weekends."
Manning's teams have made it to the NCAA Tournament all four years he has been at the helm. However, they've only won one game — over BYU in 2002 — and were eliminated in the first rounds against Idaho State and Colorado the past two years.
This year "it's important that the coaches and players are not satisfied to be there," Manning said.
Manning said he is good friends with Arizona coach Dan Tobias, who he coached with on the Olympic Development program. The Wildcat goalie is McCall Smith, who prepped at Skyline High.
"They're a terrific team and it will be a very competitive game," Manning said.
Besides Utah and BYU, the MWC got three schools into the NCAAs for the first time ever. UNLV, which won the MWC tournament title over New Mexico, will play Cal State Fullerton Friday at Fullerton.
Tickets for the two games at Ute Field will go on sale Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Utah Athletics Ticket Office, located at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Phone orders will be accepted at (801) 581-UTIX.