Women's Soccer Shoots for NCAA Repeat

It's been another awesome athletics autumn on The Farm, with the football team one win away from its first Rose Bowl in 13 years and women's volleyball seeded second nationally in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the number one seed Cardinal women's soccer team travels to San Diego this Friday to defend its NCAA College Cup title.

 The final four returns to the West Coast for the first time since 2000, and Stanford hopes to use a "home coast advantage" to win back-to-back NCAA championships.

The top ranked Cardinal have compiled an impressive 21-1-1 record despite having lost a trio of 2011 first team All Americans -- Hermann Trophy winner Teresa Noyola, runner-up Lindsay Taylor, and Camille Levin -- from last year's undefeated and untied national championship squad. Coach Paul Ratcliffe has built the strongest program in the land as the Card make their fifth straight College Cup appearance.

This year has perhaps been Ratcliffe's greatest coaching performance.  He needed to replace the two best players in women's college soccer without any obvious Hermann Trophy contenders returning to The Farm, and the team got off to a stumbling start. After opening with a comeback home win over Santa Clara (down 0-1 at half, winning 6-1 at the end) and a road victory over highly ranked Penn State, the Cardinal lost to unranked West Virginia in their third match of the season.  They then came home to tie Boston College.  At that stage, the team's record was 2-1-1, a shocking change from the last three years, which saw undefeated marks going into the College Cup.

Part of the problem was the absence of star sophomore forward Chioma Ubogagu, who missed LSJU's first five games while playing for the gold medal-winning United States under 21 women's national team in the World Cup in Japan.  Stanford also started the season without returning starting goalkeeper Emily Oliver, who missed all of the non-conference games with an injury. But, part of the challenge was simply trying to fit the returning and new players together to replace Noyola, Taylor, and Levin.  

The team, though, did come together and the Card have not lost or tied since that Boston College match in late August.  LSJU won its next four non-conference games, then completed yet another undefeated conference season -- though not without a few scares.  Stanford won six matches by a single goal, including a double overtime win at USC [Ed: that rings a bell, for some reason].    

That same weekend, on Sunday, October 28, LSJU played at No. 2-ranked UCLA.  The Bruins had long owned the Pac-10, winning for five out of six years before Stanford started its own streak in 2009.  Playing in front of home crowd that exceeded 4,000 fans, UCLA had a chance to wrest the conference lead -- and the #1 national ranking -- from Stanford with a win.  The Bruins scored first early in the second half to take a 1-0 lead, but two goals within 72 seconds around the 78th minute mark gave Stanford the comeback win.  That clinched the Cardinal's fourth consecutive conference championship, though a 1-0 win at Berkeley the following weekend was a nice lagniappe.

Stanford then began the NCAA tournament with four games at its home Laird Q. Cagan stadium ("the Q").  It beat an overmatched Idaho State, 3-0; then had a very tough match with local rival Santa Clara, pulling out a 2-1 win with two second half goals and 15 minutes of tough defense after Santa Clara pulled within a goal. This was not an easy match!  Denver, an upset winner over #4 seed Maryland, fell to Stanford 3-0 in the third round, setting up a rematch in the quarterfinals with UCLA last Friday.

UCLA knew it could play with the Card, having done so less than four weeks earlier.  The Bruins came out aggressive, taking an early 1-0 lead in the seventh minute, a lead that held up throughout a first half in which they seemed to dominate a sluggish Stanford team.  A different Stanford club came out for the second half, with the seniors – especially Rachel Quon (with help from junior Sydney Payne) – seemingly determined to make their last match at the Q another victory.  And they did.  Lo'eau LaBonta pounced on the ball in the front of the goal twice in post-corner kick scrums – a goal in the 56th minute and another in the 69th.   Twenty-some nail-biting minutes later, the whistle ended the quarterfinal:  Stanford 2, UCLA 1.  The team had another undefeated season at home – and the seniors ended four years at the Q with a record of 52-0-1!

Ratcliffe has eventually settled into a pretty consistent 4-3-3 starting line-up.  Ubogagu, Courtney Verloo, and sophomore Lo'eau LaBonta typically start at forward.   Four year starter Mariah Nogueira physically dominates the midfield, with help from sophomore Alex Doll and junior Nina Watkins.  The four defenders include two more four-year starters: Mexican national team player Alina Garciamendez in the middle and Rachel Quon on the wing.  They have been joined by the impressively solid freshman Laura Leidle on one wing.  The other center back position has eventually settled down to senior Maddie Thompson after an injury to last year's starter, Kendall Romine, and some serious game time to freshman Maya Theuer.  Once back from injury, Emily Oliver has been a fixture in goal, relieved occasionally by Aly Gleason late in games.  

Sydney Payne has been a frequent early sub (and occasional second half starter).  When she comes in at forward, LaBonta typically moves back to midfield and Nina Watkins comes out.  Annie Case at defender and Hannah Farr at midfield have also been frequent subs, especially lately, with Natalie Griffin getting some important minutes at forward.

After several years with dominant goal scorers, this year's scoring has been more distributed.  No 20-plus goal scorers or 50-plus point scorers exist this season.  An opportunistic Courtney Verloo leads with 10 goals and 31 points.  Seven players, though, have between five and seven goals. Chi is second in points with 21, but her remarkable ball handling skills hold the promise of more production in her junior and senior years.  Lo'eau LaBonta has been a pleasant surprise. She is Stanford's shortest player (listed, quite unbelievably, at 5 feet, 5 inches -- we believe the first five) brings high energy, sharp twists, and clever back heel passes to the team.

The strength of the squad, though, is the four year senior starters:  Mariah, Alina, and, especially, Rachel Quon.  Through the Card's 4-0 start to the tournament, Rachel has been "Refuse to Lose" Quon, pushing herself and her teammates relentlessly in quest to victory.  She has often overlapped on attack from her defender position and has, at times when LSJU has needed goals, been dispatched to play an attacking midfielder or even forward.

Stanford will meet North Carolina (13-5-3) in the second national semi-final on Friday evening at the University of San Diego's Torero Stadium. The legendary Tar Heels have won a record 20 NCAA women's soccer titles, most recently in 2009 when UNC edged LSJU 1-0 in a rain-soaked final. The Cardinal have never beaten the Tar Heels, tying three times including a match last season, and losing the other eight.

UNC's roster is typically diverse, with several foreigners, from Venezuela, Canada, New Zealand and Serbia, along with three Bay Area natives and the obligatory Texans and Carolinians. The Tar Heels have been inconsistent on offense, with nearly half their goals coming in just four blowout victories among their 21 matches.

If Stanford can finally get its first ever win against UNC, it will face another familiar foe in the winner of the Penn State—Florida State semifinal in Sunday's national championship match. LSJU defeated Penn State 3-2 back in August and beat FSU in the 2011 College Cup semifinals and in the 2010 quarterfinals.

After falling in the semi-finals in 2009 and in the finals in 2010 and 2011 (both times by heartbreaking 1-0 scores) the Card finally broke through last season to win its first College Cup with their own 1-0 victory in the finals.  Nothing is easy in high level soccer, but a repeat victory couldn't happen to a more deserving group of players.

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