The world of college sports can be rather complex – with three NCAA divisions, and varying degrees of competitiveness between conferences within each of those divisions, there is plenty to take into account when choosing a school. As such, we have put together a quick rundown of how the system works.
Scholarship limits in NCAA sports are split into two different types – head count and equivalency. Women’s soccer is an equivalency sport, and in Division I has a limit of 14 scholarships per program. What this means in practice is that those 14 scholarships can be split any way that the coach so chooses. Some players will be offered full scholarships, others will be offered partial scholarships, and other players will be non-scholarship players (known as walk-on players). NCAA Division II soccer is also an equivalency sport, with a limit of 9.9 scholarships per program. NCAA Division III does not offer athletic scholarships.
31 of the 32 NCAA Division I conferences sponsor women’s soccer, with only the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference not offering the sport (although some teams in this conference do play women’s soccer either as independent programs or in another conference). Whilst the champion of each conference reaches the 64-team NCAA Tournament at the end of the season, there is a vast disparity in the level of each conference. This is evidenced in the number of teams each conference has had selected to play in the NCAA Tournament in each season.
There are five ‘power conferences’ in NCAA sports, and they dominate the upper echelon in just about every sport. They are the Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, and Southeastern Conference (SEC). Below is a table that shows how many teams each of these five conferences has sent to the NCAA Tournament between 2015 and 2019.
|Atlantic Coast (ACC)||7.8||8|
As the table shows, these teams deliver an average in excess of half of the total teams to the NCAA Tournament each season. Generally, Australian players to have success at this level are those with W-League and/or Young Matildas experience. Teagan Micah, Beattie Goad, and Rachel Lowe all played in the Pac-12, whilst Demi Koulizakis played in the Big 12. Alexandra Huynh and Kahlia Hogg also played in the Pac-12 before returning to the W-League, and this is by far the most popular of the power conferences, in part due to its geographical position on the West Coast, which makes it the closest power conference to Australia.
Best of the Rest
Sitting just below the Power Conferences are the American Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference, and Big East. Whilst not quite on the same level as the power conferences, these three conferences regularly send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament and provide a high level of competition. Often times these conferences feature teams that make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, with Big East side Georgetown reaching the College Cup semi-finals in 2018. The table below shows how many teams each of these conferences have sent to the NCAA Tournament between 2015 and 2019.
|West Coast (WCC)||2.6||3|
Very few Australians have played in any of these three conferences, although former NPL Queensland player Ellie Papalexiou did carve out a solid career in the West Coast Conference at Pacific.
The One-Bid Conferences
Whilst there are 23 other leagues that regularly only send their champion to the NCAA Tournament and receive no additional selections, not every one-bid conference is equal. The list below shows the Adjusted Non-Conference RPI Ranking (not a perfect measurement, but a reasonable guideline) for the 2019 season for each conference not yet mentioned.
Of course, the rankings do change from year to year, but generally each conference stays at or around the same spot in the list each year. For example, it would be absolutely unthinkable for the Colonial to drop to the mid-20s or the SWAC to jump into the top 15 next season, but the Patriot could well finish 18th or 19th in 2020 without turning too many heads.
The majority of Aussies play for teams in one of these conferences throughout the levels. For example, Wyoming, which has seen more than a handful of Aussies over the years, plays in the Mountain West, whilst former W-League players Emily Hulbert and Monique Iannella became legends of the Hofstra program, which is a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. Conversely, Paige Hayward and Shelbi Vienna-Hallam banged in goals for fun in the SWAC, whilst Isabel Hodgson starred in the Southern Conference for East Tennessee State.
The Ivy League, home to schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton stands out atop this list, but does not offer athletic scholarships, making the path to these schools much more difficult for Australians.
Many of the top academic schools also feature in the top athletic conferences – money talks both on the pitch and in the classroom. However, this is not always the case. For instance, many of the University of California programs in the Big West conference are among the top in the nation alongside the flagship campus which plays in the Pac-12. The Patriot League and Colonial Athletic Association also feature universities amongst the nation’s elite, whilst several conferences feature in USA Today’s Top 100 National Universities. Of course, this also means that there are other colleges that play in an elite conference, but do not sit quite as highly in the academic rankings.