Dec. 1, 2011
KENNESAW, Ga. - A year ago, it was snowing.
Two years ago, worse - freezing temperatures with a wind that chilled to the bone.
On Thursday, sunny and warm.
For Stanford's women's soccer, the weather seemed like a promising symbol for a team that had suffered its share of chilly endings in its previous three trips to the NCAA College Cup.
But under the sunny skies in Kennesaw, Ga., those disappointments seemed further away than a year or two would seem, following losses in the cold of Cary, N.C., in 2008 and 2010 and College Station, Texas, in 2009.
The feeling, at least at first glance, was altogether different. The team practiced on a brand new practice field aimed for completion just for this occasion.
Later, the players walked between lawnmowers and field-painters working on KSU Soccer Stadium grass, which was once grown for the golf course at Augusta National and felt every bit as royal.
A banquet in downtown Marietta, in an exquisitely refurbished brick building that once was the home of a tire shop, completed a day of promise.
All that's next is Friday, with a semifinal against Florida State (2 p.m. PT, ESPNU, ESPN3.com) for the right to play in Sunday's national final against Duke or Wake Forest. And, a chance to erase some of the enduring feelings disappointment while also justifying Stanford's place atop the women's college soccer world.
"Of course we remember the last three years, but right now we are focused on the next game."
"It's important to remember the feeling and remember our mistakes," senior All-American Teresa Noyola said. "But it is important to move on and I think we have all done that.
"We have talked about it. We came here to play Florida State and all our energy is focused on Florida State and nothing in the past or the future. Of course we remember the last three years, but right now we are focused on the next game."
Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe fully understands the expectations, from within and outside. But he also acknowledges that it's nothing new. The Cardinal (23-0-1) has entered the College Cup as the nation's top-ranked team in each of the past three years.
"There is always pressure," he said. "It comes from the pressure we put on ourselves."
Stanford brings a high-powered offense, and perhaps an even stronger defense, if that is possible. The Cardinal has outscored opponents, 69-9, over the course of the season, ranking No. 4 in the nation in goals per match and No. 2 in goals-against average.
The team does not carry the personality of one individual - it plays with a collective soul. Try to pick a star and the debate will begin with Lindsay Taylor, the team's leading scorer with 20 goals and the one who should receive much of the attention in the Hermann Trophy conversation.
But can one positively say that Taylor is more valuable than Teresa Noyola, the girl from across the street (she attended Palo Alto High School on the other side of El Camino Real from the Cardinal practice field)? Noyola, after all, will undoubtedly earn first-team All-America honors for the third time and embodies what the Stanford student-athlete is all about, having been named an Academic All-America with a 3.52 cumulative grade-point average.
And what about Camille Levin, another senior? From the opening 4-0 victory over Penn State, Levin has given the Cardinal attack another dimension with her full-field runs to the end line from her outside right back position.
And can anyone honestly say there is a better defender in the country than junior Alina Garciamendez? The center back plays like the World Cup veteran she is, tracking down forwards, backing up teammates, and igniting the attack.
And what of Emily Oliver, who has allowed only 0.26 goals per match, the lowest figure in the country.
Add that this is the final stretch for Levin, Noyola, Taylor, and Kristy Zurmuhlen - a senior class that has gone a combined 93-4-4 in four years and never lost at home.
"We've really focused on enjoying the journey through it all and taking each training session one day at a time rather than looking too far into the future, but all with the goal of winning a national championship," Levin said.
"We have high expectations," he said. "I am proud of what we have accomplished. But, ultimately we want to win the next two games to cap off their careers at Stanford."
That quest begins Friday. And the day's forecast? Sunny and warm.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics