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A two-year absence from the NCAA Tournament can feel a good deal longer.
Since they last went to the postseason in 2013, the Utah Utes endured two injury-plagued seasons with only five combined Pac-12 wins. But this year, No. 23 Utah is back on the board, and got the chance to cheer during the NCAA Selection Show on Monday when the Utes saw themselves pop up for an opening-round game against Texas Tech on Saturday at Ute Field (1 p.m.).
"Just watching that show and seeing our names up there, it just makes my heart happy," senior midfielder Katie Rogers said. "It's just a great feeling, because it just shows how hard this team worked."
One of the secrets to Utah's success may be that many of its key players don't know how tough it has been to get back to competitiveness.
Utah's fresh faces have contributed heavily to its 11-3-5 season, and why they took only one loss while finishing fifth in the Pac-12 (6-1-4). Starting three freshmen along the back line and with several sophomores including conference-leading scorer Hailey Skolmoski (13 goals) playing key roles, the brash youth of the team has been one of its greatest assets, coach Rich Manning said.
The Utes haven't been affected by big moments and high stakes yet, perhaps because they don't fully appreciate how big and how high they are.
"Honestly, there were so many times where I went to the older players and asked were they ready for the challenge," Manning said. "They said, 'We don't want to know the rankings. We don't want to know the consequences. We just want to play.' I'm not going to change that now."
Skolmoski has stood out as the most potent individual scorer for Utah since 2007, and she's been a key difference-maker, particularly since getting healthier in conference play.
But Utah's defense is also quietly one of the stingiest in the Pac-12. The Utes boast a 0.65 goals-against average, which is the second-best in the league. They've won five games 1-0, and tied four others at 1-1.
After taking 3-0 and 2-0 losses to Minnesota and BYU, respectively, the Utes gave up multiple goals in only one other game, their only Pac-12 loss, to Stanford.
"It always takes a little bit to figure things out, but I think we're fortunate to figure things out on a young team sooner," freshman defender Natalie Wells said. "Our team has such good chemistry, even when the games get close at the end, we don't break down."
The next challenge is to do something the Utes have done only twice in their history: win a postseason game.
Both previous postseason wins came under Manning in 2002 and 2006. This year, the Utes will get an opportunity to host the Red Raiders (9-8-2), who finished eighth in the Big 12. Should Utah win the opening round at Ute Field, it would face the winner of 3-seed Florida State-Samford next weekend in a four-team pod, which would likely be hosted at Pac-12 rival USC.
Extending the season at least one home game means a lot to the players, many of whom hail from Utah. But they're on the hunt for more.
"The team can go as far as they want," Manning said. "They've continued to surprise me throughout the season, where I thought they might have a letdown or maybe they won't be up for the challenge. They've met every bar and every challenge."
NCAA women's soccer tournament
Texas Tech at Utah
P At Ute Field,
Saturday, 1 p.m.