Ticket to the dance: Ute soccer receives at-large bid for NCAA Tournament, set to host first two rounds

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The Ute soccer team was left holding its collective breath after losing to New Mexico 1-0 in the Mountain West Conference Tournament last Thursday. It can relax now, if only for one day.

At 14-6-1 the Utes put forth a solid case for NCAA Tournament participation, but concerns remained since they were ranked just eighth in the Western region despite a No. 22 national ranking.

All doubts were finally erased Monday afternoon with the announcement of the tournament field and the surprise bonus that the Utes will play host to the first two rounds.

“We ended badly in our conference tournament,” junior defender Melissa Wayman said. “Just to get a chance to prove that we belong in front of our home crowd is great.”

“I’m relieved,” head coach Rich Manning said. “We’re really excited to be in the tournament and test ourselves to see how far we can advance.”

The U kicks off against a familiar opponent in Arizona (9-7-3) on Thursday at Ute Field at 7 p.m. They’ll be out for revenge after losing to the Wildcats 1-0 in overtime Sept. 16.

“Everything worked out great,” freshman midfielder Katy Reineke said. “At (BYU) they usually get so many fans, so it’s huge to play in Salt Lake. And playing Arizona is great, too, because we lost to them in such a close game earlier this year.”

This is only Arizona’s second time in the tournament. It lost last year to Colgate in the first round.

Accompanying the Utes in their sub-region are Weber State (14-4-1) and fourth-seeded BYU (15-2-3), which plays before the Utes on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The Cougars are one of 16 seeded teams in the field.”We just have to try and take it one game at a time,” Manning said. “Arizona will present a good challenge; they’re a terrific team. If we get by them, then the focus becomes BYU or Weber.”

The second round match-up will be 1 p.m., Saturday.

When it was announced that the Utes were not only in the field, but playing host to the first two rounds, screams roared out all around the room.

“All of us weren’t sure if we’d get another shot,” Manning said. “I think a second life can be a re-energizer. We’ll see if we can capitalize on that.” Manning said he’s surprised that the U’s bid to host the tournament was accepted.

“I’m a little interested to see why that happened. I thought BYU would get it. Maybe there was something in their bid that wasn’t right. We put in a bid because we thought we could do a great job of hosting, though, and I’m really excited for the opportunity.”

The announcement marks the U’s fourth straight appearance in the tournament.

“You’ve got to feel pretty good about it,” Manning said. “Getting in the tournament on a regular basis is sort of the standard that we try to reach for.”

Athletics Director Chris Hill said he’s thrilled with Manning’s performance.

“He’s been great,” Hill said. “It’s not just what the public sees-it’s every aspect of what he does with the team. He’s a great team builder, he knows how to recruit, and he’s just a fantastic coach.”

Tickets for the tournament go on sale today at 10 a.m. and may be purchased at the U ticket office at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

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