Mids soccer among nation's best

In an era when players are trying to beat in their opponent's heads in the middle of a football game using various medieval tactics and even a pair of crutches, it's good to know there are better college sports stories out there. There is, in fact, a brighter side to the antics displayed last weekend in the Orange Bowl.

One such story, which unfortunately is not getting a lot of press, is occurring in Annapolis, Maryland. And no, I'm not talking about the Navy football team…I'm talking about the Navy soccer team – the Navy women's soccer team to be precise. They are on the verge of a very special season, led by a very special coach. So if you are tired of hearing about football brawls and are looking for a feel-good story in college sports, keep reading.

When Carin Gabarra's soccer career is over, she will probably be first remembered as one of the best players in the history of the sport. However, her team is doing everything possible to ensure that her legacy includes a note or two about the coaching portion of her career. The 1996 gold-medal Olympian and four-time All-American is building quite a powerhouse in women's soccer at a college known more for powerboats…big powerboats.

The Navy women's soccer team is the last unbeaten and untied team in the country. At 16-0-0, the Mids are ranked #17 in the Soccer America poll, and they are four regular season games away from perfection. Standing in their way to a magical close to the regular season are Patriot League foes Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell. Also in the way is Penn State – a team that is ranked #12 and also destroyed the Midshipmen last year 5-0.

Perfect or not the rest of the way, the Mids will likely qualify and probably host the Patriot League Tournament on November 3rd. Win it, and they will receive the automatic NCAA bid. Lose it and they will have to wait and see if they qualify for an at-large bid. If this were basketball, Navy would have a great case for being included in the postseason. But since it is women's soccer, a lot of factors go into deciding at-large bids – including geographical location. According to Gabarra, Navy deserves that at-large bid.

"I think we should (get an at-large bid). We have been nationally ranked now for four weeks and our RPI is very good. I don't even think we have to beat Penn State (to qualify) because they are ranked higher than us. We need to play well against them. We can't let them blow us out. I know a lot of coaches don't think we play too tough a schedule but it's hard to win 16 games in a row no matter who you are. I'm hoping we do real well in the league tournament and we won't have to fall back on that."

Last year, the Mids were plagued with injuries and depth issues which led to a disappointing 10-8-2 record, or as Gabarra puts it, the team "underachieved." What a difference a year makes. This season, the team has outscored its opponents 57 to 3. That wasn't a typo. Navy sophomore goalie Lizzie Barnes has allowed just one of those goals while making 46 saves. This percentage of stops definitely begs the question, "Could her Olympian coach score on her?"

"Nobody could score on Lizzie Barnes," joked Gabarra. "Maybe I should go out to practice today and score a couple on her to just mess around with her." "Lizzie is playing great but our defense in front of her is playing great as well. It's a collective effort. I tell them before the game, 11 of us defend and 11 of us attack, and they've bought into that."

When Gabarra isn't overseeing the last unbeaten and untied soccer team in the country, she is home with her husband Jim and their three children: Tyler, 9, Abigail, 7, and Talia, 5. So how does the ultimate soccer mom handle everything?

"I hate to say it, but I think the same challenge exists for every parent in the country. I used to say that I had the most respect in the world for a single parent because it's hard especially in the beginning when your children are young. And it's hard for me because all of my kids are active in sports, and in the fall I miss a lot. But my husband and I have been pretty balanced. We have jobs where one of us can be there for them. Raising kids is hard work."

I guess it is a good thing that Gabarra does not have to worry about raising her players (yes that is a jab at the University of Miami). Unlike the aforementioned street brawlers, her players police themselves.

"We have four seniors and we kind of sit back and let them decide on the rules, the curfews - the who, what, where and when - because that is how the school is run. They've done a great job of that," said Gabarra. "We have always said that our success lies in the first-class (senior) leadership. This year they have been tremendous…making sure it is a team effort."

Since the seniors make the rules, I asked the coach if the players would demand she and assistant coach, Rob Blanck go for a swim in the Severn River if the team wins the Patriot League Tournament, which happened back in 2003.

Gabarra's response, "It's likely."

With only those four seniors on the roster of a currently unbeaten team, Gabarra may just want to invest in a wetsuit.

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