The leftover Thanksgiving turkey is all eaten. The Stanford football team appears headed for a Fiesta. The usually reliable women's volleyball and men's water polo teams may not even make it to their respective Final Fours. The men's and women's basketball teams look terrifically promising, but we are still weeks away from conference play.
Gosh, what's a Cardinal sports fan to do this week?
How about this - we get to cheer on the top-ranked women's soccer team as they head to their fourth consecutive College Cup, the Final Four of NCAA soccer! Stanford W Soccer has been one of The Farm's most successful programs since the mid-90's, with 14 straight NCAA tourney appearances and, now, four consecutive final fours.
Defending national champ Notre Dame and perennial powers UNC, UCLA and Portland have all long exited from the tournament, and this could finally be the year that the Cardinal emerges as College Cup champions. .
Women's soccer has a rich tradition on the Farm. Olympian and 1999 World Cup champion Julie Foudy starred for Stanford in the early 90s. By the late 90s, Stanford became a consistent top-20 program, powered by the "Dynamic Ws" - three stars, all from the Bay Area: forwards Marcia Wallis and Marcy Ward and midfielder Callie Withers.
Led by the Dynamic Ws, Stanford won the Pac-10 in 1999 and 2002, compiled a sparkling 65-17-4 record from 1999-2002, with a #1 ranking and Elite Eight appearance in 2002, a run cut short by a still painful loss at Stanford to Portland in a penalty kick shoot-out.
That impressive run has paled, though, by comparison to Coach Paul Ratcliffe's recent powerhouse teams. Led by the current group of seniors, beginning in 2008, Stanford has had an amazing 93-4-4 record, including an unbeatable 53-0-1 at its home field, Cagan Stadium.
Think about that for a moment. 93-4-4. That nearly flawless performance over a four-year period is approached by only the women's basketball and volleyball teams during their recent heydays.
The 2008-11 women's soccer teams have produced several World Cup players for the USA and other countries, and many who are currently playing professionally in the WPS.
Three Cardinal alums, Kelley O'Hara, Rachael Buehler and Nicole Barnhart, were on the USA team that captivated the nation during last summer's World Cup in Germany.
O'Hara (2009) and Christen Press (2010) were back to back recipients of the Hermann Trophy from the Missouri Athletic Club, emblematic of the nation's finest female soccer player.
The only thing missing from this Cardinal cavalcade of honors? An NCAA title. In both 2009 and 2010, the Cardinal was undefeated until the very last match of the season. In December 2009, Stanford fell in the national championship match to UNC, 1-0. Last year in the final, it was the same score, a 1-0 loss to the Fighting Irish.
Will this fourth time finally be the charm?
Stanford is the Barcelona of women's college soccer. They play a pretty, possession-centered game. They pass, pass, pass, and then pass some more, dominating possession and setting up shot after shot. This style also has the advantage of wearing the other side down, allowing even more offensive pressure in the second half. That kind of soccer is beautiful, but it requires great depth of talent – one or two stars cannot pull it off. And this team certainly has the necessary talent, up and down the lineup.
Start with the forwards. Lindsay Taylor from Palo Alto's Castilleja School was named Pac-12 POY, and has scored 20 goals this season, which, with her 6 assists, gives her 46 points (2 for goals, 1 for assists) and the Cardinal team lead. Her latest score was the "Golden Goal" (in the third minute of a sudden death overtime) that propelled the Card over Oklahoma State (sign of football things to come?) last Friday in the quarterfinals.
Chioma Ubogagu, a true freshman from Texas, has lit up the field with her speed, gorgeous passes, and amazing footwork. (Watch her for a possible Hermann Trophy in the future.) Chi (pronounced "Chee") has 9 goals and 9 assists and is third on the team with 27 points.
Junior Marjani Hing-Glover started the season as the first forward off the bench, but has been starting for the last month. Her deceptive speed and high energy have given the Cardinal a real spark, and 17 points.
The midfield is anchored by senior Teresa Noyola, who was Gatorade POY as a high school senior at Paly High, with 8 goals and 15 assists. Teresa is the women's soccer equivalent of Andrew Luck, constantly surveying the field and picking out open players with quick, accurate passes.
Staying with the football analogy, our next midfielder, if male, would have been a great middle linebacker. Junior Mariah Nogueira is a tough, bruising force at mid, winning header after header, but also showing a surprisingly deft passing touch.
Rounding out the midfield is senior Kristy Zermuhlen. Calling "Z" a pit bull isn't quite fair; she doesn't seem vicious. But she is relentless. She is not always the most graceful player on the squad, but her motor never stops – she harasses opponents mercilessly and is constantly moving, with or without the ball. Senior Zermuhlen, who had seen limited action in her prior years on the team, has made the most of her opportunity this fall, and got the first goal in Friday night's 2-1 quarterfinal victory.
For all the strengths of this squad, the best contingent may be the defenders. Senior Camille Levin has won a place in the hearts of many Cardinal fans, both with her skillful defense (no one gets past Cammie) and with her deep overlapping runs into the offense. Short and strongly built, she could be called a fireplug except that no fireplug moves as fast or as well. Cammie is so versatile that, although she starts at defender, Ratcliffe regularly moves her to midfield or even forward when the team needs a goal, moves that paid off in the 2-1 come from behind win early in the season against defending champion Notre Dame and in last Friday's overtime victory. She has played literally every position on the field this fall, other than goalie.
Center defender and junior Alina Garciamendez is the rock of the defense, calmly and carefully protecting the back and distributing excellence clearances. Alina, a Texan with Mexican ancestry, joined Teresa Noyola on the Mexican World Cup squad this past year, earning substantial playing time. The other center defender is redshirt frosh Kendall Romine. Kendall, daughter of former LSJU rugby star Rob Romine, missed the entire 2010 season with injuries, but has started 20 of our 24 matches this year. A tall, fast defender, she has seemed particularly strong at bringing the ball forward, especially as the season has worn on.
Junior Rachel Quon is the exclamation point at the other side of the defense. One of the fastest defenders ever at Stanford, Rachel has been a starter from her first game at Stanford and for good reason. A staunch defender, she is also excellent at overlapping runs along the side and pinpoint centering passes. It was Quon's centering pass, from the end line, that set up Taylor's game winner last Friday.
We come, last but certainly not least among the starters, to goalkeeper Emily Oliver. Emily provides a firm wall in the goal and directs the defenders in front of her. She has allowed only 5 goals all season, one for every 350 minutes she has spent in goal. (Of course, it has helped that, between our offense and our defense, our opponents have only gotten 179 shots off, an average of just under 7.5 per game, compared to our 544 shots.) A soccer team can only be as good as its keeper and Stanford and its keeper are quite good, indeed.
Another noteworthy aspect of this squad, though, is its depth. Everyone on the team was a high school superstar and many talented players are just waiting their turns to star. This season, particularly noteworthy subs have included junior Madeleine Thompson, a center defender and midfielder; Sydney Payne, a forward who started for the first half of the season; Annie Case (daughter of AOL founder Steve Case), an excellent defender who started frequently last year as a redshirt freshman and whose insertion on defense allows Cammie Levin to move to mid or forward; and forward Taylor McCann (no relation to last year's senior, Alison McCann). But many others have also seen substantial playing time, as Ratcliffe seems to have used the talent on his bench more freely this year than in past seasons. That really pays off when he can substitute in fresh legs who have had real game experience.
Going into this season, the question was whether anyone could replace Hermann Trophy winner Christen Press, with her 26 goals and 60 points, the way that Christen had replaced 2009 Hermann winner Kelley O'Hara, with her 26 goals and 65 points. Lindsay Taylor's season certainly has helped, but this year's squad has been a more collective effort, with 67 goals spread among 14 players (out of only 21 non-goalkeepers on the squad). Eight players have more than 10 points, compared with 5 in 2010 and 6 in 2009. On the other side, Stanford has given up only 9 goals all season, four of them by back-up keepers.
The only semi-blemish on the Cardinal record is a keeper's draw (0-0) in their first road game of the season, at Maryland. Of their other 23 matches, only five have been decided by one goal: a come back 2-1 victory at home against Notre Dame, two 1-0 victories in the road swing to Washington State and UW (the latter in overtime), a 2-1 road victory in Corvallis, and last Friday's 2-1 overtime victory.
The next steps on the road to the title begin on Friday afternoon in Kennesaw, Georgia, in the semi-finals against Florida State. The 18-6-1 Seminoles are ACC champions making their fifth Final Four appearance.
FSU's roster includes reserve defender Katie Riley, who played for the Cardinal in 2006 and 2009, graduated from The Farm and is now pursuing her M.S. at FSU. Riley missed the 2007-08 seasons due to injury and so was eligible to suit up for the Noles this season while attending grad school at FSU.
If FSU sounds like a familiar NCAA opponent, they are. A year ago, Stanford demolished the Noles 5-0 in the NCAA Elite Eight.
The other half of the Final 4 pits Duke against its ACC rival, Wake Forest. This is Duke's third Final Four appearance, but first since 1992. The Blue Devils are 21-3-1, with wins over Notre Dame and FSU. The Blue Devils' only losses were to Wake, UNC and Auburn.
Wake, whose roster includes four Californians, is making its College Cup debut. The Demon Deacons, 18-3-4, split their two ACC games against Duke this fall, with Duke winning 2-0 in October and Wake winning 2-1 in the ACC tournament.
Both Duke and Wake beat FSU in the regular season, but FSU won the ACC title over Wake, on PKs. Got it?
The one common opponent amongst all four teams is another ACC team, Boston College, whom Stanford dispatched handily 2-0 in the Sweet Sixteen round. Duke and FSU both beat BC by identical 1-0 scores in the regular season, and Wake lost to BC in the regular season before beating the Eagles in the ACC tourney.
Soccer may be the unkindest sport of all, as so often the team that controls the flow of the game, dominates possession and outshoots its opponent, may end up on the short end of a 1-0 score. Stanford, which has vastly more recent Final Four experience than FSU, Duke and Wake, creates scoring opportunities as well as any of the other three College Cup participants. If the Cardinal can convert just a few of those shots into goals, they should return from Georgia as the NCAA champions. This is a great team and one that plays gorgeous soccer, for the love of the sport, of their teammates, and of their school. (It surely isn't for the big pro contracts awaiting them.) They deserve our (LOUD) support.
Their semi-final match is scheduled for 2:00 pm, PST, on this Friday, December 2, with the championship match at 10:00 am, PST, on Sunday, December 4. The games are being shown live on ESPNU and on ESPN3.com. Watch...now!!!
Do you have a "premium" subscription to The Bootleg? If not, then you are seriously missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest, broadest, and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!