One of the most persuasive reasons for Coach Eddie Radwanski’s high hopes for the future of the Clemson women’s soccer program is the competitive credibility that the Tigers established within the ACC this season.
Any doubts as to which league can easily claim the distinction of strongest collegiate soccer conference in the country will confront the facts that six of the eight teams that reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament this season were from the ACC, and that ACC teams accounted for three of the Final Four.
The only thing the ACC didn't do was win the national title, as UCLA advanced past No. 1 on penalty kicks overtime and then edged Florida State 1-0 in the College Cup final on Sunday.
No wonder, then, that Radwanski interprets his young team’s competitiveness at the conference level as synonymous with competitiveness at the national level.
“It’s kind of exciting as to what the future could hold for our group,” said Radwanski. “If we stay hungry, and continue to evolve and improve, we could be in a really good scenario. Look at our conference this year, where six of the final eight were ACC teams, and we had three of the final four. Duke was in that elite-eight, and that was a team we felt like we outplayed, and who we should have gotten a result on.
“I’m hoping our group realizes that Duke went to the elite-eight, so why not Clemson? If you don’t see it, and think about it and believe it, it’s never going to happen. I see it, think it, and believe it all the time.”
Despite a heavy reliance on a large freshman class, the Tigers were consistently in contention in their league matches and registered four ACC wins, as well as draws with Duke and No. 3 Florida State, which was one of the league’s NCAA Final Four representatives (along with Virginia Tech – to whom the Tigers dropped a 1-0 overtime decision on the road – and top-seeded Virginia).
There were also some near-miss results that came against the run of play (a 1-0 loss at home to Wake Forest, and a last-second 2-1 season-ending road loss to Miami), and, in which, had the Tigers prevailed, they might have earned an NCAA berth themselves.
Radwanski sees those missed opportunities as painful if sometimes necessary lessons in a young team’s process of maturation.
“In the Miami game we missed a penalty to go up two-nil, and in losing that match, we never should have been in that situation,” he said. “But I do take some solace in the fact that we were dominating that game, and that in going forward, we won’t let that happen again. That’s an unfortunate part of the journey at times: that you have to suffer and struggle. You hit those moments, but that’s how you learn.”
While Radwanski expects his resurgent program to build on its ACC successes, he realizes that nothing ever comes easily in a league that’s so ritually challenging.
“There’s still a lot of hard work to do,” he reminded. “You’d love to think that it’s always going to be an evolving process up the hill. But the reality is that at some point you plateau, or you have a stumble before you continue to go on, though I would love for the ascension to be continuous. But that’s going to be our job, managing that.
“I do get encouraged looking at our results against some of the better teams, and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there’s an opportunity here if we can seize it.’ So that gets me excited about where we’re headed.”
Though much of the focus this season has been on the Tigers’ impactful underclassmen, Radwanski is also quick to credit the seniors – those embattled but determined holdovers he inherited when he took the job at Clemson three seasons ago – for the team’s significant progress on the ACC front.
“It was enjoyable this season, and we had a lot to be proud of,” said Radwanski. “I felt good for the seniors, because they left the program in a much better place than when they first arrived, and that was really important to them. They helped Clemson matter again.”