SALT LAKE CITY — When Rich Manning first came to Utah, he took his women’s soccer team to the NCAA tournament for five years running (2002-2006). But then things got tougher, particularly after the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
The Utes made it to the tourney in 2013 and Saturday afternoon they will be looking for their first NCAA tournament victory in a decade when they take on Texas Tech at 1 p.m. at Ute Field.
The Utes finished fourth in the Pac-12 this year with just a single loss to No. 1-ranked Stanford while compiling a 6-1-4 record with an overall mark of 11-3-5 and were thrilled to learn they would get a home game to start the tourney.
Manning calls it a “big bonus” to be playing on their home field and he feels his team will be up for the challenge.
“They’ve continued to surprise me throughout the season and when I thought maybe they might have a letdown and they might not be up for the challenge,” he said. “But they’ve met every bar and every game the team has played well and competed at a high level and I don’t expect that to change. I think that means we can be in any game, including this first one.”
In Texas Tech, the Utes will be playing a team that is making its fifth straight NCAA appearance. The Red Raiders were on the NCAA bubble this year after a 9-8-2 record this season and losing in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, but they were excited when their name was called earlier this week.
Texas Tech has won four straight opening-round games in the NCAAs, outscoring opponents by a 14-0 margin. But all of those games were at home and coach Tom Stone knows it will be a challenge for his team on the road Saturday.
"Now we get to go to altitude and play a team that's red-hot,” he said. “They're one of the best teams in the Pac-12 — very athletic, very well-coached, they're the heavy favorite. I think we can sit in that spot and get ready for them and hopefully give one of our best performances of the year."
The Utes have been led all season by sophomore forward Hailey Skolmoski, who has 13 of Utah’s 26 goals this year and was named to the all-Pac-12 first team. Other top players include senior midfielder Katie Rogers, freshmen defenders Aleea Gwerder, Tavia Leachman and Natalee Wells and sophomore goalkeeper July Mathias.
The winner of Saturday’s game will move on to the second round to play the winner of Florida State-Samford. That game is likely to be played at USC next week if the Trojans win their game against Eastern Washington. If both USC and Florida State lose, the Utes could host a four-team NCAA regional.