The Aztecs weren’t supposed to be there in 1987. They weren’t supposed to even make the NCAA tournament. After losing its last four games of the regular season, San Diego State found itself hoping for a playoff berth. Their wish was granted, earning the last seed of 24 teams. Soon, the Aztecs found themselves in the College Cup final facing Clemson.
Cinderella stories transcend time and celebrate underdogs — otherwise known as sleeper teams. Some of their surprising postseason runs become like folklore, retold every championship season.
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So we’ve chosen five teams that illustrate the meaning of a Cinderella season, using each program’s history and fairy-tale journey through the NCAA tournament. Now, these teams didn’t necessarily reach the pinnacle of success, a national title, but they proved to be a force in their sport. If we missed one you think deserves recognition, let us know by sending us a note at NCAASupport@turner.com
San Diego State 1987
How can you best describe San Diego State’s battle back? The nearly forgotten team found a surge in play immediately. Entering the playoffs with a 16-5 record, the Aztecs beat host St. Louis, host Southern Methodist in penalty kicks, UCLA (all time record against the Bruins: 1-13-4) and Harvard in penalty kicks to reach the final.
Zero home games and several trips across the country decreased their likelihood of advancing. Yet they kept finding ways. On Dec. 5, the Aztecs became the second team in school history to make an NCAA final, joining the 1973 men’s volleyball team.
Ultimately, their Cinderella story ended in defeat to the 23rd seed Clemson. 1987 was a year of resurrection for the near forgotten.
Michigan State 2018
Let’s revisit last season when Michigan State entered the NCAA tournament unseeded and eventually advanced to the College Cup for the first time since 1968, back when they won their last title. In the second round, No. 4 Louisville forced the Spartans into overtime, where they eventually won, 2-1. Unseeded Akron followed three rounds later in the semifinal and dealt the Spartans a 5-1 loss.
The end was abrupt especially with the Zips scoring five goals, but it will be interesting to see if the Spartans can build off of last season’s success. Through four games this season, they are 0-2-2.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County 2014
UMBC’s 2014 postseason run did not start out easy and neither did it end straightforwardly. In the first round at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons forced the unseeded Retrievers into double-overtime and eventually penalty kicks. Michael Scott hit the game winner in the fourth round, advancing the Retrievers to face sister college No. 4 Maryland. They escaped the second and third round, shutting out the Terps and No. 13 Louisville, 1-0.
No. 12 Creighton awaited in the quarterfinals after breezing through its first two playoff matches, outscoring opponents 3-1. After 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, the intense match turned into a penalty kick shootout. The Retrievers never trailed in the duel after goalkeeper Billy Heavner saved the Bluejays first shot. The 4-3 penalty kick victory quickly turned into a wild celebration on the field, as seen in the video below.
Celebrations were stunted, however, during the semifinal match, when the eventual national champion Virginia shut them out 1-0. Opponents held UMBC to two goals through five rounds — a strong testament to the Retrievers’ defense keeping alive throughout the title run.
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North Carolina Charlotte 2011
It’s not often a school faces its sister university in a NCAA tournament final. Unseeded North Carolina Charlotte did just that in 2011 after ousting No. 3 Connecticut in the quarterfinals via penalty kicks and repeating the same feat against No. 2 Creighton to advance to the College Cup final, where they’d meet No. 1 North Carolina Chapel Hill. For the 49ers, it was their first final appearance in program history. Unfortunately, the breakthrough season ended in a 1-0 loss to the Tar Hills. But it also began a six year NCAA tournament streak — the best annual playoff run in UNC Charlotte history.
One of the most exciting seasons in men’s soccer featured a historical end between American and UCLA. First, American had to beat George Mason, South Carolina and Hartwick, in which they did: 3-1, 2-0 and 1-0, respectively. UCLA comfortably skated through, outscoring their opponents 9-2.
The pair of teams met on Dec. 14, 1985, at the Seattle Kingdome for the 7 p.m. College Cup final kickoff. It took eight overtimes for a goal to be scored, becoming the longest match in history (166 minutes, 5 seconds). By the end of the match, American was competing with only nine players after a red card and injury.
UCLA capitalized as Andy Burke came off the bench to score the sole goal of the match and clinch the national championship.
It’s almost hard to declare just one team a winner when both showed so much skill and stamina in what remains the longest match in history. The face off was a staple showing of defense and ultimately changed the NCAA. Rules were enacted afterward enrolling two 10-period overtime periods and, if needed, a shootout to determine a winner.