2012 Olympic Sports Fall Preview

While much of our attention is focused on the beginning of the Stanford Football season, a number of outstanding Cardinal "Olympic Sports" programs are gearing up for runs at championship seasons. Our man Kevin Danna is on top of things as usual, providing us with a table-setting summary of several sensational seasons to come.

2012 Olympic Sports Fall Preview

I love football as much as the next Bootie and can’t wait for August 31, but I also spend my days pondering Tara Danielson’s at-large chances, women’s soccer’s repeat probability and the new-look men’s soccer team under the guidance of a new head coach. And oh yeah, I’m looking forward to a huge season from Rachel Williams, too.

Let’s take a look at some of the other fall sports around campus. I’m only previewing teams I have seen play a significant amount - field hockey, women’s soccer, men’s soccer and women’s volleyball.

Field Hockey

Last year - Tara Danielson’s team put on a show last year and received the highest ranking in program history at No. 6 at one point during the season. Their only losses all season were against ranked teams and put up a program-record 17 victories and garnered the school’s first ever NCAA at-large bid. While the Cardinal played the usual RPI-dragging NorPac suspects, the Cardinal also posted six wins against top 20 teams, including winning its regular season finale at No. 7 Michigan 3-0 and knocking off Cal twice. However, the season ended in a rough fashion for Stanford, losing the NorPac championship 1-0 to Cal before getting thoroughly whipped by Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Key losses - The Cardinal lose three players who started all 21 games last year in Stephanie Byrne, Devon Holman and goalkeeper Ale Moss. I’d venture to guess that Byrne will be missed the most out of those three for her creativity with the ball at her stick and coming up clutch in a few key situations last year.

Key returnees - Becky Dru is by far the biggest gun coming back. The England native led the team with 16 goals and 39 points in 2011 and is their strongest penalty corner taker.  However, there is a lot of other talent coming back, most notably Hope Burke and Alex McCawley; the two of them combined for 16 goals and 17 assists.

Freshman to watch - goalkeeper Dulcie Davies, who comes to The Farm just in time to replace the graduated Ale Moss. The word is Davies is really, really good; she had the talent to start for Stanford field hockey in net LAST year. I really can’t wait to see her stand on her head in a couple of days for the Cardinal’s season opener against La Salle. Update: Stanford defeated LaSalle 10-0!

Reason for Optimism - A lot of pieces return from a team that went 17-4 and secured an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Another year under Tara Danielson certainly won’t hurt, either, as she has more than proved her worth in replacing Lesley Irvine, this being her third year.

Cause for Concern - That schedule is no joke. After La Salle on Friday, the Cardinal face two-time defending champion and top-ranked Maryland on Sunday. Next up is No. 20 Northwestern on Wednesday before traveling halfway across the country to match up against Michigan State in East Lansing on the August 31. The non-conference schedule also includes North Carolina, six-time NCAA champions coming off three consecutive final four appearances, Syracuse, last year’s BIG EAST Tournament champion, and UCONN, which beat Stanford 4-2 last year and made it to the final four. And oh yeah, you have to deal with Cal, another team that is sure to be ranked.

Last spring, field hockey scheduled tough, with games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and James Madison in order to boost its NCAA resume, and the result was a 3-9 start that included some losses against MPSF schools Stanford was used to beating. You don’t have much of a choice but to schedule top-ranked programs coming from a weak conference if you want to receive at-large recognition, but it certainly has the risk of overtaxing a team.

Women’s Soccer

Last year - The fourth time was a charm for the women’s soccer bunch, winning the school’s first NCAA championship in its fourth consecutive trip to the College Cup (the Final Four of soccer). It was the third straight year the Cardinal went undefeated in the regular season, but they weren’t able to put the cherry on top until a second half goal from Teresa Noyola in the NCAA championship game against Duke. She was aided by an amazing cross from Camille Levin, who was almost taken down a couple of times before lofting one up from the right side for Noyola to head in the net. After getting screwed against North Carolina in 2009 and suffering a heartbreaker against Notre Dame in 2010, the Cardinal finally had their hardware.

Key losses - That winning combination in the NCAA championship game is gone (Levin to Noyola), as is last year’s leading goal-scorer Lindsay Taylor, as is New Hampshire’s finest Kristy Zurmuhlen. Together, the four seniors combined for 39 goals (14 game-winners), 33 assists, 106 shots on goal and 252 shots. That’s a lot of offense- more than half of their goals scored as a team in 2011 are gone. Also, goalkeeper extraordinaire Emily Oliver is out with an injury, and there’s no telling how long she will be out.

Big returners- When Oliver gets healthy, she’ll assume her spot as one of the best keepers in the nation. While the Card lose a lot of scoring, sophomore Chioma Ubagogu has the chance to be really special after a ten-goal, ten-assist, 30-point freshman campaign. The defense will also be rock solid with center back Alina Garciamendez and outside back Rachel Quon returning for their senior seasons. Those two were a huge reason why the Cardinal only gave up nine goals all of last season. Don’t forget about Mariah Nogueira either; she is probably Stanford’s best aerial player for three-plus years running now.

Freshman to watch- Laura Liedle. The outside back started her first collegiate regular season game against Santa Clara (a 6-1 win for Stanford) and provided two assists. Midfielder Kate Bettinger also seems to have a nose for the action, or at least she received a lot of touches against Fresno State in the August 10 exhibition. Give Bettinger some time, and I think she can be a serious goal threat.

Reason for optimism- Look at the roster. It’s loaded. Paul Ratcliffe has a brilliant mind and strives for creativity on the pitch. His players deliver, as they did in a 3-2 win at Penn State this week.

Cause for concern- The one “knock” against Stanford recently is that they get off to slow starts, as was the case when it fell behind No. 17 Santa Clara 1-0 at the break (before scoring six goals in the final 45). They do lose a lot of scoring from last year, so the Cardinal might be playing with fire if they find themselves in an early hole against high quality teams like conference rival UCLA.

Men’s Soccer

Last Year- A lack of a consistent offensive punch and away games (one win away from Laird Q.) really did this team in last year. While it was a far cry from the 2008 team that scored just 14 goals (the Cardinal scored 20 as a team in 2011), Stanford was shut out nine times, including an ugly 3-0 loss to UCLA in the home finale. A 3-0 win at Cal in the finale couldn’t save Bret Simon, who ended up resigning at the end of a 6-10-2 season, the second straight year Stanford missed out on the NCAA tournament.

Key Losses- Garrett Gunther might have been a small dude, but he packed a huge right boot and made very dangerous runs down the sides of the field. The 5’6 Gunther ended up leading the team with five goals and 12 points.

Big Returners- This is probably the most talented senior class Stanford has had in a while with guys like Adam Jahn, Dersu Abolfathi, Eric Anderson and Hunter Gorskie. Gorskie is the captain of this team, holding things down defensively as a center back. Anderson makes the runs down the right wing. Abolfathi holds it down in the midfield. Jahn provides the finishing touch.

Freshman to watch- Midfielder Aaron Kovar has been very impressive in the two exhibition games. He scored the game winner against Saint Mary’s and showed off some fancy footwork.

Reasons for Optimism- New head coach Jeremy Gunn is an Englishman, and he brings that English Premier League mindset of not letting off the gas to The Farm. If the Sacramento State exhibition is any indication, the Cardinal will not sit on a late lead; rather, they will find ways to pad it. The red and black striped Cardinal were still looking for a fourth goal with a couple of minutes remaining in the exhibition game. They play an exciting brand of football.

Causes for Concern- It’s a new brand of football, and that could mean growing pains. Men’s soccer is probably the most topsy-turvy Pac-12 fall sport; after UCLA, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. Cal and Washington are very solid, but San Diego State and Oregon State can beat anybody in any given 90-minute period. Update: Stanford defeated USF 1-0 earlier this week.

Women’s Volleyball

Last Year- John Dunning’s bunch got off to a roaring start in 2011, taking care of perennial powers Penn State and Florida to wrap up a perfect non-conference slate. While the Card got off to a 2-3 start in conference play, they worked themselves back in the AVCA Top 5 with nine straight wins, including a three-set sweep over then-No. 4 USC. That would be the apex of the season however, as the Cardinal would go .500 the rest of the way, including a minor upset loss at home to Oregon in five sets and a four-set defeat to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Key Losses- Stephanie Browne was one of two Stanford players to average more than one block per set. She also made the most of her opportunities on the attack, hitting .286 (you can more or less use baseball batting averages as a gauge for how someone is hitting, with perhaps a little more leeway for volleyball) and averaging more than a kill per set, not too shabby for a middle blocker who would play occasional outside. She is gone to graduation, so is seldom-used Katherine Sebastian, and then there was the tragic death of Sam Wopat.

Big Returners- Everybody else. Stanford brings back its top six hitters, starting setter and top three liberos. The team was known for its super sophomores last year, and now Carly Wopat and Rachel Williams have another year of collegiate volleyball under their belt. Lydia Bai and Hayley Spelman came along nicely as the season progressed, and nobody is messing with Karissa Cook’s sets.

Freshman to Watch- Take your pick among middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, setter Madi Bugg, outside hitter Jordan Burgess, outside hitter Brittany Howard and middle blocker Megan McGehee. Those five comprise the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation as ranked by PrepVolleyball.com. Dunning knows how to reload with the best of ‘em, and the word is a few of these players are good enough to play a significant amount right away.

Reasons for Optimism- This team relied heavily on underclassmen last year, and that should translate into some heady volleyball this year. They’re also the Stanford Cardinal, and they never miss the NCAA Tournament. Update: The Cardinal defeated Saint Mary's 3-0 this week.

for Concern- The Pac-12 is very tough top to bottom. Half of the conference is ranked in the AVCA Preseason Top 25, including No. 1 and defending NCAA Champion UCLA and No. 5 USC.

The seasons start up in earnest this weekend, and if you ever come out to a soccer or field hockey game, feel free to stop by the PA booth and say “hello”.

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