Across-the-board accomplishment during the fall sports season came with a price for the ACC: collective hypertension.
Syracuse men’s soccer survived four consecutive 1-goal postseason matches before defeating Indiana in sudden-death penalty kicks for the national championship. N.C. State’s victory margin at the NCAA women’s cross country meet was the event’s narrowest in five years.
Even unbeaten field hockey juggernaut North Carolina needed a goal in the final two minutes — from two-time national player of the year Erin Matson, naturally — to edge Northwestern and claim its fourth national title in Matson’s five seasons.
In women’s volleyball, Louisville and Pittsburgh reached the Final Four for the second straight year after surviving five-set matches in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals, Pitt’s over defending champion Wisconsin on the road. The Cardinals then defeated the Panthers in five sets to become the ACC’s first-ever volleyball finalists before falling to Texas in the title match.
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The gold standard of women’s soccer for decades, North Carolina became the first team to lose a national championship match after leading 2-0. The Tar Heels yielded the tying goal with 16 seconds remaining in regulation and fell 3-2 in double-overtime to UCLA.
Clemson won its seventh ACC football title in the last eight seasons, but a 1-point setback to South Carolina in the regular-season finale torched the Tigers’ College Football Playoff aspirations.
Football was the seventh and final championship of the ACC’s fall, and eight different schools won or shared those titles.
Florida State and Syracuse earned conference championships in women’s and men’s soccer, Wake Forest and N.C. State in men’s and women’s cross country, and UNC in field hockey. Louisville and Pitt shared the volleyball title, splitting two regular-season matches.
“That’s pretty spectacular,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said of the league’s competitive balance.
The impressive Olympic sports haul — a Division I-best three NCAA titles and two other finalists — dulls the sting of missing the CFP for a second consecutive year. Football remains the enterprise’s financial engine, but in the ACC, it’s not at other programs’ expense, witness the addition of a women’s gymnastic championship in 2023-24.
Olympic sports success is “an incredible point of pride for the league,” Phillips said, “and it’s a testament to our schools that offer these amazing broad-based programs, as well as the support, resources, the coaches that they’re hiring and the student-athletes that they’re attracting.”
About some of those coaches and athletes:
Taking advantage of her COVID-bonus year, Matson became a five-time, first-team All-American, and her coach, Karen Shelton, retired after 42 seasons and 10 national championships.
Katelyn Tuophy and Kelsey Chmiel finished first and third, respectively, at the NCAA women’s cross country meet to lead N.C. State to its second straight title.
Signaling the league’s peerless men’s soccer depth and tradition, Syracuse is the eighth ACC program to win the NCAA tournament, joining Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson and former conference member Maryland.
The conference has no such heritage in volleyball. Indeed, until Pitt and Louisville reached the 2021 Final Four, the lone ACC team to advance to the national semis was Florida State in 2011.
“My first year in the ACC, we didn’t have any teams ranked in the top 25,” sixth-year Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly, a national champion player and assistant coach at Nebraska, said during a Final Four news conference. “And I remember we kept winning. We could not break into the top 25 [because] we weren’t beating any ranked opponents. ...
“And I’ve talked to [Pitt coach] Dan Fisher a few times. We need each other to be great. ... And I’m pretty excited we both made it back to the Final Four, because I think last year, there was a lot of noise, like, ‘Oh, this is a one-time thing.’ For us to both do it again under completely different circumstances with completely different teams just says a lot about the growth of the sport.”
Attending the Final Four in Omaha, Neb., Phillips witnessed first-hand what an exceptional spectator experience and television product college volleyball is. And as the NCAA considers selling TV rights to women’s championships separately rather than in a bundle, Phillips believes the ACC can further market its entire Olympic sports portfolio, through ESPN, the ACC Network and corporate sponsors.
“There’s a residual that comes over time,” he said. “It may not be instantly, but as we look forward to revenue generation, this is another way.”
Reflecting on the last four months, Phillips was quick to mention D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr., Virginia football players shot and killed in November.
“They’ll never be forgotten by the ACC, I can promise you that, and I know by Virginia,” Phillips said. “Let none of us forget about those three young men, and let’s try to lift up their families in any way we can now and into the future.”