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Women’s Soccer Team Stunned at Being Left Out

Members of the Dartmouth women’s soccer team react in disbelief and disappointment after the team was overlooked for the NCAA tourney.
(Valley News — Sarar Priestap)

Members of the Dartmouth women’s soccer team react in disbelief and disappointment after the team was overlooked for the NCAA tourney. (Valley News — Sarar Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

Hanover — Sixty-four schools from around the country received their invitations to the NCAA Division I women’s soccer championship yesterday. The list included a No. 6 seed in its conference tournament, a school from a 10-team league that couldn’t produce a single winning record and just one New England representative.

None bore the name of Dartmouth.

Despite a nine-win turnaround from 2011 and a seven-game winning streak to close the year, the Big Green received the big snub when the NCAA released its tournament field yesterday. Buoyant and excited at the prospect of a postseason game while watching the selection show in the Floren Varsity House auditorium, Dartmouth players instead filed out teary-eyed and silent as the highest-placed program in the NCAA’s ratings percent index (RPI) to not make the field.

“Obviously, we’re super-disappointed because I think we believe that we belong in the tournament,” second-year Dartmouth coach Theresa Romagnolo said. “We were on a seven-game win streak; we were pretty hot at this time. We thought we had a pretty good opportunity to get in.

“We beat some good teams, had a great record. But it’s tough because you never know what that committee’s is going to decide. … At the end of the day, the only way to get that sure thing is to win the Ivy.”

Princeton (13-3-1) did that, running the Ivy League table with a 7-0 mark that included a 2-1 defeat of Dartmouth (13-4-0) in New Jersey on Sept. 29. The Big Green followed that with a 2-1 overtime loss to NCAA-bound Pepperdine in Hanover, then didn’t lose again … until yesterday.

Thirty NCAA teams, including the Tigers, received automatic bids by winning regular season crowns or conference tournaments. The remaining 34 reached by virtue of at-large berths; nine schools ranked lower in the RPI than Dartmouth (37th), all from major conferences, gained at-large entries into the national championship.

“The last publication (on Oct. 30) had us at 29th, and that was a pretty safe bet,” Romagnolo said. “To be honest, playing Cornell (a 3-0 win on Saturday) probably dropped us, even though it was away. We were probably in the mid-30s, and that’s where the committee decision comes in.

“Normally, I’d say you’d be safe in the mid-30s. Right around the 40s to 50 is when you get shaky.”

The Big Green roster arrived at Floren bouncy, counting down the minutes to the online selection show, which spread out over three video screens in the building’s auditorium. The players reacted occasionally to revelations such as Pepperdine (“We could have beat them”), Princeton (a loud “awwww”) and Colgate (audible relief from several).

When the show host called Southern Conference champ Georgia Southern “one of the best underdog stories” of the tournament, one Dartmouth player reacted, “No! We’re the best underdog story!”

Romagnolo’s athletes grew quieter as each name was released. Resignation set in when four of the final six slots went to Texas-based schools. Tears and embraces followed.

“I definitely thought we were bubble, but I wasn’t worried about any of that,” Romagnolo said. “I was just hoping to see our name on the screen.”

That she felt confident enough to invite the media to view the selection show with her squad spoke to the level to which the Big Green improved — in hard-to-expect fashion — from a 4-12-0 mark in Romagnolo’s first season at the helm.

For one, Dartmouth discovered how to dent the net. After scoring just nine goals in 2011, the Big Green struck 34 times this season, tying for 40th out of the NCAA’s 323 Division I teams in goals per game (2.00). Midfielders Chrissy Lozier and Emma Brush both fired more than 50 shots at opposing goals; to no surprise, they finished 1-2 in team scoring with eight and seven goals, respectively.

The Big Green was no slouch on defense, either. Led by central defender Aurelia Solomon and backstopped by goalkeeper Tatiana Saunders (seven shutouts), Dartmouth led the Ivy League with the fewest goals surrendered in both league play (five) and overall play (13).

Romagnolo will lose Solomon, Brush and midfielder Kim Rose from a six-player graduation class, but most of the talent will be back for a program that turned an unexpected corner.

“I changed my focus a little bit, in terms of how we were going to play,” Romagnolo said. “I put more responsibility on players on going one-v-one, making things happen on their own. We were playing more of an aggressive, attacking style and less of a straight possession style, that the first thought was going to goal instead of keeping the ball.”

If the Big Green feels like sending out any nastygrams, likely destinations will include Long Island, Wisconsin and the deep South.

Stony Brook (Suffolk County, N.Y.) took a nick out of Dartmouth by advancing from the sixth seed to win the America East Conference’s automatic bid. The same could be said for the autobids that went to Horizon League champ Milwaukee (RPI No. 119, 8-8-1) and SWAC survivor Mississippi Valley State (Itta Bena, Miss.), the only NCAA tournament team with a losing record (8-9-3) out of a conference that fielded 10 schools with sub-.500 marks.

With the show — and season — over, Romagnolo gathered the Big Green into a circle, reminding them that just being together to see the bad news was a sign the program had made great strides this fall.

“It’s kind of gut-wrenching and a shock to the system,” Romagnolo said. “I hope, like I told them, that — not this quickly after, but eventually — they can reflect on the season and realize all that they’ve accomplished and enjoy what they’ve done.”

Corner Kicks: The nine schools below Dartmouth in RPI that were invited: Arizona State, Long Beach State, Washington State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado College, Rutgers, Auburn and Miami (Fla.). … Princeton will visit West Virginia to open NCAA play on Saturday. … Former Dartmouth coach Steve Swanson’s Virginia squad earned the second seed in its bracket and a Friday night home date with Atlantic 10 champ La Salle. Swanson coached the United States to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup title in Japan in September. … Boston College (RPI No. 23) was the only New England school chosen, one of the nine to represent the ACC.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.