Clara Robbins still remembers what she felt when she ran on the field as the clock hit all zeroes in the 2018 national championship match.
Robbins, then a freshman for the Florida State soccer team, was elated, joining the celebration as the Seminoles clinched their second national title.
Unfortunately, that was the only time Robbins was able to run around the field that day.
A season-ending injury suffered months earlier left Robbins a spectator to that FSU squad’s title run.
Robbins has spent the past three seasons doing whatever she can on the field to recapture that feeling.
Impressive victories: Florida State soccer leaving teams in awe as it moves a step closer to the College Cup
This past May, Robbins and her teammates got close but were denied at the doorstep when they lost a heartbreaker in penalty kicks to Santa Clara in the national championship match.
Robbins and the Seminoles are in Santa Clara this weekend, though, looking for a chance to make things right.
Florida State (20-1-2), the top overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament and No. 1-ranked team in the nation, is aiming to win its third national championship starting Friday night when it takes on No. 5 Rutgers (19-3-2) in a semifinal at 7 p.m.
BYU and defending national champion Santa Clara will play in the other semifinal at 9:30 p.m. The final is set for Sunday night at 8 p.m. if Santa Clara wins. If BYU wins, the final would move to Monday night at 8 p.m.
“Obviously I was happy and proud of the whole team in 2018, but there is a sense of even greater joy to think that I might have the chance to contribute on the field to another championship,” Robbins said. “After the quick turnaround from last May and the disappointing result, I think the whole team is excited to have another chance to compete at the College Cup.”
In addition to making their second consecutive College Cup appearance, it will be the 12th all-time for the Seminoles.
Florida State has been one of the most consistent programs of the past two decades in an era where women’s college soccer has seen much more parity than it did the prior two decades.
The sport was once dominated on the women’s side almost exclusively by North Carolina, a 21-time national champion from 1982 to 2012. While the Tar Heels remain one of the nation’s best, no team has made more trips to the College Cup since 2003 than Florida State, which is now tied with Santa Clara for the second-most trips all-time.
Florida State coach Mark Krikorian, who surpassed 300 career coaching wins this season, took over the program in 2005 and has led the Seminoles to 11 of those 12 appearances and both national titles.
“I don't know that anyone has been able to, or will ever be able to duplicate what it is that (North Carolina) created,” Krikorian said. “Their excellence for 20-something years was a great example for us to look at and say, okay, this is what we want to try and be and this is how we're going to try and go about our business. So for us, I'm so grateful and thankful that there was a UNC soccer because it did show us that you can be consistently excellent if you are doing things in the proper fashion.
“I’ll look back at this after I'm done with my coaching career and have a better perspective on it than I do today. Today, it's about preparing the team to get out to California and compete against Rutgers and so on, but I'm certainly proud of what we accomplished.”
Part of the DNA of Krikorian’s teams over his tenure at FSU goes beyond just having some of the most skilled athletes in the nation. It’s been recruiting mentally-strong players like Robbins, who rebounded from her early-career injury and became one of the team’s most important starters over the past three seasons.
Robbins, a two-time second team All-ACC selection and NCAA All-Tournament team recipient in 2020, started 57 games since her freshman season and recorded 12 goals and 20 assists.
Krikorian compares Robbins to other Seminoles’ greats over the years such as former defender and current U.S. national team member Casey Krueger, who achieved major success after overcoming injuries during their college career.
“In the world of coaching and teaching, you’re not really supposed to have favorites. But everybody here absolutely loves the kid and we looked at her diligence and attention to detail," Krikorian said about Robbins. "And it's not just on the soccer field. It's in the classroom. It's in the community. So I think that as her successes have continued to grow, there's an awful lot of people here that are big fans of hers. I don't know, maybe I'm the chairperson of the fan club.”
Robbins often rises to the occasion in big moments in matches as she has each of the past two seasons earning ACC tournament MVP honors. This season has been no different as she matched a career-best six goals and finished with a career-high eight assists.
“Over the course of my years here, I’ve improved the most mentally not just tactically in terms of how I think on the field, but my mental status when things get tough, how I’m going to push through it,” Robbins said. “That’s something I think (dealing with) injuries has contributed a lot to. Just knowing what pain I can take and how much I can push myself has been huge the past two years and knowing how to get the best out of myself and my teammates. Our team is good at staying composed and not getting too anxious when we’re under pressure and the stakes are high.”
An impressive core group
Although she played in only three matches that season, Robbins is one of seven players who were on the roster in 2018. Reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner Jaelin Howell, Kristina Lynch, Kirsten Pavlisko, Gabby Carle and Yujie Zhao each played in the Seminoles’ 1-0 national championship win over North Carolina that season. Emily Madril, a Hermann Trophy semifinalist this season along with Howell, was with the team, but redshirted that season.
The core group has fueled a dominant season which saw FSU set a program record with a 14-game winning streak to open the season, secure its second consecutive ACC tournament title and eighth overall and give up only one goal (on a penalty kick) over its four NCAA Tournament matches. A program record 17 different players scored goals for the Seminoles this season.
“It’s been great to grow together and become a mature team and develop as people and players,” Robbins said. “There’s a lot of memories on and off the field that come with that. To see that coming to a close is a little bit sad and nostalgic but also exciting because we’re getting ready to move on to the next phase in life.”
Staying on course
FSU’s dominance is even more remarkable considering this season’s tournament saw numerous upsets as the Seminoles became the only ACC team to advance to the College Cup and one of only two No. 1 seeds along with Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights are making their second-ever College Cup appearance and chasing their first championship. Rutgers is coming off back-to-back wins in penalty kicks over TCU and Arkansas and, similar to FSU, has had 13 different players score goals led by senior midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri (13 goals, nine assists) and senior forward Amirah Ali (12 goals, six assists).
Rutgers ranks 10th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 2.67 goals per game. FSU ranks fifth with 2.83 goals per game.
“When they have the ball we need to have a plan on how we're going to be successful in preventing opportunities,” Rutgers coach Mike O’Neill said. “They're going to be really good at the ball. So we need to do a good job defensively. And then when we have it, we need to make sure that we do a good job of keeping it.”
A familiar foe?
Things could come full circle for Robbins and her teammates if FSU ends up playing Santa Clara in a rematch of the 2020 final.
With the Broncos playing at home, the match would have a similar road game feel just as FSU’s victory over North Carolina did in 2018 when it beat the Tar Heels in Cary, N.C. before a partisan UNC crowd.
“I think all of us know it’s a possibility but it’s not something that we haven’t dealt with before,” Robbins said. “We’re all looking at it as being excited to play in a new place and in a fresh environment. We’re focusing on Rutgers and we’d have to win that game first, but if it comes down to it, we’ll be up to the challenge.”
NCAA women’s soccer College Cup
Who: Florida State (20-1-2) vs. Rutgers (19-3-2)
When/where: 7 p.m., Stevens Stadium, Santa Clara, Cal.
Reach Andre Fernandez at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @FernandezAndreC.
No one covers the ‘Noles like the Tallahassee Democrat. Subscribe using the link at the top of the page and never miss a moment.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: FSU soccer's bid for 3rd national title could go through familiar foe