Toughening schedule pays off as CU Buffs soccer returns to NCAA Tournament

Buffs host Northern Colorado in first-round match Saturday

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Taylor Kornieck and the Colorado women’s soccer team will host Northern Colorado on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

After being one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, Colorado women’s soccer coach Danny Sanchez didn’t skimp on this season’s nonconference schedule in hopes of keeping the Buffaloes situated strongly in the RPI rankings.

It likely was that impressive early slate that made the difference for the Buffs in the end, as CU on Monday was named to the 64-team tournament field for the fifth time in eight seasons under Sanchez and 11th time overall. The Buffs will host Northern Colorado in a first-round match on Saturday at noon at Prentup Field.

The winner will play either Belmont or top-seeded North Carolina in the second round. CU topped Northern Colorado 4-0 at home on Sept. 19 and is 9-0 all-time against the Bears. The Buffs were one of nine Pac-12 teams that earned tournament bids, led by top overall seed Stanford.

Northern Colorado earned an automatic bid after winning the Big Sky Conference tournament.

“Going 8-1 in nonconference and being able to pick up wins over Texas and Denver and Baylor, and having a tight result with Florida State, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that’s what pushed us over the edge,” Sanchez said. “Nine Pac-12 teams made it. The league was brutal this year. The record in the Pac-12 was going to be tougher than it was last year. We knew that, but we got pretty huge results in Pac-12 play against teams that got selected.

“When we look at the whole body of work, we felt good about it. But as far as the nonconference piece, I think it was a huge part of our success.”

The Buffs’ invitation hardly was a given.

CU finished the season with just two wins in the final nine games (2-6-1) and ended in a tie for ninth in the Pac-12 with Oregon State, which defeated the Buffs in Boulder on Oct. 6. A couple of those nonconference foes, like Baylor and Denver, didn’t have quite as strong of seasons as expected, and the Buffs went just 2-5-1 against teams with higher RPI marks than CU’s spot at No. 43.

However, those two wins occurred on the road, with the Buffs winning 2-1 in double overtime at Arizona (40 RPI) on Sept. 27 and 1-0 at Washington (18 RPI) on Oct. 31. CU also defeated an NCAA tourney team in Texas (48 RPI) on Sept. 1.

After narrowly missing the tourney field a year ago, the Buffs were the fourth-to-last team to have its name called during Monday’s selection show.

“We felt pretty good going into it,” Sanchez said. “When we looked at our body of work and compared it to the other teams and the NCAA criteria, we felt really good about it. The question of whether we’d host was up in the air, but we felt pretty good about it.”