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NCAA Tourney: Unseeded Virginia Tech, Providence aiming high

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One year after Jordan Morris helped Stanford steamroll Clemson in the College Cup Final, the Cardinal are three wins away from becoming the first repeat winner since Indiana in 2004.

The quarterfinals are set in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament, with four weekend matches deciding who heads to Houston and who goes home.

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With respect to Stanford and Clemson, who is also still alive, we’re looking at the two unseeded teams hoping to engineer a surprising run to glory.

Providence — With longtime star Mac Steeves limited to two matches this year, senior midfielder Julian Gressel has picked up the slack. The German has 15 goals and 6 assists in 21 games, and has the Friars on the brink of a second semifinal berth in three seasons.

The Friars (15-6) get ninth-seeded UNC next, and have not blushed in the face of big names this season. Aside from the memorable frenzied comeback over Maryland in the tourney, Providence has won at Creighton and home to Xavier in addition to one-goal losses against Clemson, Georgetown, and Villanova.

Virginia Tech — After winning just one of its last six matches leading up to the tournament, the Hokies have reeled off wins over East Tennessee State, Charlotte, and Indiana. Their reward? Mighty Wake Forest.

Va Tech managed just a single member on the ACC awards, second team junior attacker Marcelo Acuna of Costa Rica. Admittedly it’s a bit surprising that its Top 15 defense, led by goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard and his .810 save percentage, didn’t get a nod. Then again, the Hokies were under .500 in conference play.

The Hokies snapped a 17-year winless streak against Wake Forest in 2014, but hasn’t won at Wake since 1982. Could Saturday be the day?

Full schedule
Providence at No. 9 North Carolina — 7 p.m. Friday
No. 5 Stanford at No. 4 Louisville — 7 p.m. Saturday

No. 6 Denver at No. 3 Clemson — 7 p.m. Friday
Virginia Tech at No. 2 Wake Forest — 5 p.m. Saturday

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Providence and its big American striker Mac Steeves are off to a red-hot start (video)

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Mac Steeves and his Providence Friars had just made history, but the 6-foot-4 scoring forward was too busy looking ahead to appreciate his and their accomplishments.

After scoring a pair of goals in a 3-2 semifinal loss to UCLA in the College Cup semifinal, Steeves became the first player in 31 seasons to be named the tournament’s most outstanding player despite not playing in the final.

“It wasn’t even on my mind,” Steeves said. “I was pretty upset that we lost in the semifinals. I was thinking about that and getting back into fitness in the few weeks we’d have off.”

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This after the No. 11 seed Friars knocked off No. 3 Michigan State to head to the tournament. Since then, Steeves and his Friars teammates have been on the minds of opponents, having made their first College Cup while under the tutelage of English coach Craig Stewart.

On opening weekend of the 2015 season, Providence picked up where it left off. Against good competition in Monmouth and Bryant, Steeves scored braces in each match to help boost the Friars to a 2-0 start.

The goals are typical Steeves. On the first, the big American striker uses his deft touch to plunk a shot from the 18 into the corner of the goal. On the other side of halftime, Steeves bulled his way between a pair of Monmouth defenders to head a rebound home.

“He’s a modern day No. 9, where he’s obviously a physical presence with a lot of other qualities,” said Stewart, whose Friars are ranked No. 8 in the nation. “In terms of professionals, he’s like Edin Dzeko. The one player I like to compare him to, and probably cause it’s my hometown Newcastle, is Alan Shearer as a big target forward.”

source: AP
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A Spurs supporter with 16 goals in his college career, Steeves prefers Zlatan Ibrahimovic of PSG and Diego Costa of Chelsea, but that’s neither here nor there. What we have here is a big, tall American forward with good lineage — his father played semi-pro in Japan while serving in the Marines — good feet and the right mindset.

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Providence hits the road this weekend, where they’ll face Holy Cross and Rhode Island. It’ll still be nearly a month until Big East play for the Friars, but another Cinderella run to the College Cup would be far from a surprise.

Just don’t label it with the Italian folktale around Stewart.

“In many ways it was a historic season but we never felt at any point that we didn’t belong or deserve to be there,” Stewart said. “A Cinderella story is where someone makes it when they didn’t have a shot, where we really felt we belonged and deserved to go onto the final.”

Steeves is just a junior, but the next step can’t be too far away. And the former NSCAA All-American and NSCAA State Player of the Year in Massachusetts has been caught a bit off guard by the attention, but not his production.

“I put a lot of work into my game and trying to become better,” Steeves said. “The amount of success I’m having is a little surprising just because I didn’t know exactly what I was capable of.”