Thursday, November 15, 2001

KU soccer team set for NCAA opener


This is it.

After five years of coming up short sometimes just barely, while others most disappointingly Kansas senior soccer player Hilla Rantala will finally play today in the NCAA tournament.

"This really has been my goal for the past five years," said Rantala, KU's all-time points leader in goals and assists. "It's awesome, it's a nice way to finish the season."

But Rantala hopes today's 4:30 p.m. opening-round game against Brigham Young (13-6-1) at Abbott Sports Complex in Lincoln, Neb., won't be the last contest of her Jayhawk career. Nebraska (15-4-1) faces Boston College (11-9-1) at 7 p.m., in the other first-round contest.

The winners will play in Saturday's 7 p.m. championship.

"I'm going to enjoy BYU, but I don't want it to be our last game," Rantala said.

Kansas (13-6), which received one of 36 at-large berths Monday in the newly expanded 64-team field, hopes to take advantage of its second chance at the postseason.

The Jayhawks, who have never won a postseason game, were unsure if they would get in the tournament after a 1-0 double overtime loss to Missouri last weekend in the Big 12 tournament.

Now they hope to do what they've done all season win.

"I told them to remember what this felt like," said KU coach Mark Francis of the loss to Missouri. "It gives us another chance. Another shot to come back and finish the season a little later."

For Francis and Rantala, this moment has been a long time coming. The senior from Vantaa, Finland, transferred from South Alabama, where Francis coached from 1996-98.

After only two wins in his first season, Francis and South Alabama, with the help of Rantala, who had 15 goals and 14 assists, won 18 games the biggest turnaround in NCAA history. Still the team wasn't able to qualify for the NCAA tournament as it lost in a play-in-round game.

The next year South Alabama had similar success but again didn't qualify.

Rantala followed her coach to KU and in the pair's first year the Jayhawks won the most games in schools history with eight. Still, no postseason berth.

Last year, Rantala was forced to redshirt with a knee injury and the Jayhawks lost in their first Big 12 tournament appearance.

"I thought last year we'd have a chance," Rantala said. "But things didn't go as planned."

While Kansas has never played BYU, the two schools look pretty similar on paper.

The Cougars, who received an automatic bid as the regular-season and tournament champion of the Mountain West Conference, are playing in their fifth straight NCAA tournament.

BYU and KU played two common opponents this year. Both lost to Nebraska, while KU beat UNLV 4-2 in a September tournament and the Cougars defeated the Rebels twice.

BYU is ranked No. 10 in the NSCAA West Region poll while the Jayhawks are tied for eight in both the NSCAA and Soccer Buzz Central Region polls.

While Francis said he knows little about the Cougars, he's going to try to keep KU doing the things it has all season.

"I know Nebraska played them a couple weeks ago, and beat them 3-0," Francis said. "It's all kind of a scramble with this kind of deal because you don't know until the last minute, so you just gotta do what you can."

Rantala, who in all likelihood will never play competitive soccer again after the NCAAs, as she needs to undergo a career-ending knee surgery, is extremely excited about finally getting to the postseason and is willing to do whatever it takes for KU to win.

"I don't want it to end, so I'm going to go all out," she said.

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