Canes earn third NCAA berth since 2007

Forward Ashley Flinn passes the ball during a homegame against University of North Carolina. Zach Beeker//The Miami Hurricane

The Hurricanes soccer team will make its return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since earning back-to-back berths in 2007 and 2008.

The team learned of its postseason fate Tuesday afternoon, when it was announced that they will face the Alabama Crimson Tide at Cobb Stadium in their first-round matchup.

After finishing the season with an overall record of 9-7-1, UM is one of nine ACC teams selected for the 2011 NCAA Tournament; the others are Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The Hurricanes earned a playoff berth with a No. 25 RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, a figure that combines wins and losses with a team’s strength of schedule), and big victories over Boston College and Maryland, two of the top 10 teams.

Alabama also earned its first opportunity for NCAA tournament play since 2008 and only the second in program history.

The Hurricanes’ success comes in part from the strong leadership of senior goalkeeper Vikki Alonzo and junior forward Kate Howarth.

Alonzo, a four-year starter for Miami, is the vocal captain of the squad.

“On the field, our biggest focus will be communication,” Alonzo said. “From the back lineup to midfield, communicating is key.”

With 10 goals, six assists and 26 points, Howarth helped lead the Canes to their third NCAA tournament in five years and was named to the All-ACC Second Team.

UM has faced Alabama twice before. In 1998, the Canes suffered a 3-0 loss to the Crimson Tide, but won by a score of 1-0 in 2000.

For the Canes, it’s all about keeping their focus and maintaining their high performance expectations as they have throughout the regular season.

“It’s just so important to keep our heads in our game and to stay focused,” Howarth said.

Alonzo echoed her teammate’s sentiments.

“Focus really flows from one player to the next,” she said. “It has to start with one player, then the whole team will follow.”

Veteran leadership is crucial in NCAA tournament play. Several younger Canes have never played in the intense tournament environment.

“This is a very young team and I think they really follow in our footsteps; we need to lead by example,” Howarth said. “You have to play every game like it’s your last. There are no second chances.”

Alonzo is determined not to let this final opportunity slip away.

“As upperclassmen, we try to stress that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not to take it for granted,” she said.

She also said the crowd adds to the excitement of the game.

“The more people we have in the stands, the more excited we are as a team,” Alonzo said. “The crowd has a lot to do with how we play.”

The game will start at 1 p.m. at Cobb Stadium. The first 50 students will receive free admission with a valid Cane Card.