This is an extended version of a story I wrote in Wednesday's Daily News. Go pick up a paper if you get the chance.
It may not be a pandemic on the scale of March Madness, but there has been an outbreak of NCAA tournament fever in University City this week.
The Drexel and Penn men's soccer teams clinched berths in this year's College Cup by winning the Colonial Athletic Association and Ivy League championships, respectively. Both teams will play first-round games on Thursday: the Dragons visit Old Dominion at 6 p.m. and the Quakers host Providence at 7 p.m.
Drexel and Penn are two of 48 teams nationwide that will battle for the right to play in the Final Four at PPL Park next month. UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington and California are the top seeds. Maryland and Georgetown are among the national powerhouses in the field.
I've told you before about Hoyas star and New Hope native Steve Neumann. You'll also want to watch Terrapins forward Patrick Mullins, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft here in Philadelphia.
On Tuesday afternoon, Drexel coach Doug Hess and Penn coach Rudy Fuller met with reporters over lunch at a restaurant just about equidistant from the hearts of the two campuses. They're separated by literally two blocks on 33rd Street. Their annual rivalry game is one of the closest by geography in all of college sports.
This time, both coaches were rooting for each other. I know many of you already are fans of local universities, so it won't be news to you that Penn and Drexel get along quite well off the field. Still, it was nice to see that the city's basketball brotherhood extends to the world's game.
Drexel is in the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row. It's the first time the program has achieved that feat. After a 40-year wait between tournament appearances ended last year, Hess has brought the Dragons an unprecedented era of success.
Coincidentally, the Dragons were drawn against an old conference rival. Old Dominion left the CAA for Conference USA over the summer as it upgraded its football program to the FBS. We often talk about the impact that realignment has on football and basketball, but it affects all the other teams in an athletic department too.
The Monarchs won an at-large bid this year after a 10-win season, good for second place in their league. They've been in the NCAA tournament
Hess said it helps his team to face an opponent that it knows well.
"When you go into an NCAA tournament and it's all brand-news, there's a fear of the unknown," Hess said. "Meeting a team that we're familiar with takes away the fear of postseason play."
A decade ago, Drexel sent Union defender Jeff Parke into Major League Soccer. This year, the Dragons have four players from MLS club academies and six from countries outside the United States. Add to that the huge youth soccer community in the Philadelphia region, and it might not be long before Hess develops Parke's successor.
“I’m really proud of the team and what coach Hess has done in qualifying for the NCAA tournament,” said Parke, who was the very last pick in the 2004 MLS draft. “It’s been an awesome year for those guys.”
It so happens that this year's team captain is also a central defender. Senior Tal Bublil knows a few things about leadership, having spent three years in the Israeli army before starting college in Philadelphia. On Thursday, he'll be charged with stopping Old Dominion forward Tim Hopkinson, who scored 10 goals in 16 games this season.
A few blocks to the south, Fuller has guided the Quakers into the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last six seasons. Penn won its first Ivy League title since 2008, and its first outright championship since 1972.
Fuller's team is led by forward Duke Lacroix, who scored a team-high eight goals and dished out three assists this season. The New Egypt, N.J., native's résumé also includes taking part in a United States under-20 national team camp last year.
Lacroix will see a familiar face at the other end of Rhodes Field on Thursday night. He was teammates with Providence goalkeeper Keasel Broome this past summer, playing for the Ocean City Nor'easters in the amateur Premier Development League.
Fuller has seen plenty of Broome - a native of Claymont, Del. - from afar. Among the junior's accomplishments is last Friday's penalty shootout win over Georgetown at PPL Park in the Big East tournament semifinals. Broome made five saves in the game, then made the decisive stop in the shootout.
"I know Keasel really well, and I thought he was outstanding in the Big East tournament," Fuller said. "At this point in the year, there aren't any surprises. Providence is going to be able to get what they need to prepare for us, and we'll be ready for Providence."
Even though the Ivy League doesn't have a conference tournament, the Quakers can match Providence for knockout game dramatics. Fuller has had two College Cup home games in his tenure at Penn, and he won both – against Seton Hall in 2002 and against Bucknell in 2010 - by 1-0 scores in overtime.
Fuller said he "would love to have a less stressful match" this time around, but he knows that knocking out Providence will be a big test. Indeed, Fuller said "this might be the toughest" College Cup first round game he's ever faced.
"When you get in this situation at this time of year, and this type of environment, you have to expect that it's going to be a cagey type of game - and more often than not, a one-goal affair," Fuller said.