Dec. 4, 2009
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Christen Press scored 3:25 into overtime to give Stanford a 2-1 sudden-death victory over UCLA on Friday night, sending the top-ranked Cardinal into its first NCAA women's soccer final.
Stanford (25-0) plays 19-time national champion North Carolina in the final on Sunday at 10 a.m. PT at Aggie Soccer Stadium. North Carolina beat Notre Dame, 1-0, to advance.
A long ball played from the Stanford defense caromed off a UCLA defender to Press, who strided forward and fired a low 25-yard shot inside the far post, and was mobbed by her teammates.
"I remember thinking through the whole overtime that, as a forward, I would have a chance," Press said. "I had to be ready for my one opening. When it comes, I had to hit it hard and low."
The goal was the 21st goal for Press, who earlier assisted on Kelley O'Hara's goal that gave Stanford the lead. Together, they have combined for 47 goals and 123 points and are in the midst of the two highest scoring seasons in Stanford history.
Kelley O'Hara scored her national-leading 26th goal of the year, in the 64th minute, off a square pass from Press. It was the 20th time the two had combined on a goal this season.
"It's fitting that two of the best strikers in the country scored our goals today," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said.
But, for the first time this season, Stanford failed to protect a lead, on a windy and cold (37 degrees at kickoff) night.
Lauren Cheney, a U.S. national-team player, scored on a looping right-footed shot over the reach of Stanford goalkeeper Kira Maker in the 76th minute to tie the match for UCLA (21-3-1), at 1-1.
The momentum, however, turned back toward Stanford in the waning moments of regulation. First, Lindsay Taylor was inches wide of the right post from long distance. And in the final seconds, O'Hara nudged a long through ball past onrushing goalkeeper Chante' Sandiford, but fired off the right post.
But, as O'Hara said later, the goals may not have gone in, but the Cardinal was growing in confidence.
"It was a letdown when we let the goal in, but we've been in this position before," O'Hara said. I thought we were playing well up until that point. I think we responded well to it, obviously. We went back at them and got a few more chances, and went into overtime feeling the momentum."
Stanford has emerged from the semifinals for the first time in three tries, and has a chance to become the first non-North Carolina team to complete a season with a perfect record. The Tar Heels accomplished the feat four times, most recently in 2003.
"We have to stay humble and realize the job is not done," Ratcliffe said. "We have one more step to take. As much as it's exciting and was a great win, we want to win on Sunday and win the national title. That's our goal."
Stanford, which beat the visiting Bruins 2-0 on Oct. 18 on the way to the Pacific-10 Conference title, outshot UCLA, 19-16. Stanford has outshot every opponent, but that was the closest shot margin of the season. And it was the Cardinal's second overtime match, having beaten host Washington State, 2-1, on Oct. 23 on an O'Hara goal.
Press convinced herself that the team with the most desire would win, and took it upon herself to play with that intensity.
"When I get into a big game like this, I always tell myself it doesn't matter if you are the better team or not," Press said. "It's who wants it more."
The final four involves the same teams as 2008, when Stanford lost to Notre Dame, 1-0, in the semifinals. To Press, her motivation began the moment she walked off that field in Cary, N.C.
"It's not often you get a second chance," Press said.
And she made sure it counted.