Aug. 17, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - For the Stanford women's soccer team, it's hard not to look into the future without looking into the past.
The team's recent past has been both glorious and painful -- two of the greatest seasons in school history ending with heartbreaking 1-0 losses in the national championship final.
That's why the upcoming season must be seen in context with recent history. In truth, they are linked. The characteristics and personality of the 2011 Cardinal may be largely different than any other year, whether better or worse, but either way, there is a sense of unfinished business.
Each season under ninth-year coach Paul Ratcliffe, Stanford has drawn closer to its first title. Is this year the Cardinal steps forward or back?
"In order to win the national championship, it's going to take a mentality, a hunger, a drive, a desire, to prove that we deserve to win the whole thing," Ratcliffe said. "But it's not easy getting there. It's a lot of work. And then we've got to finish the job."
Nine starters return
Stanford appears to be capable of doing so. The Cardinal returns nine starters, including four All-Americans, from a team that went 23-1-2 and captured its second consecutive Pac-10 Conference title with a perfect conference record.
However, even with a team that returns largely intact - the entire defense is back - change will be apparent without graduated 2010 Hermann Trophy winner and national leading scorer Christen Press and midfielder Allison McCann, who played more career matches than any other Stanford player.
Press scored 26 goals and McCann was an unsung hero for her efforts in doing much of the grunt work that launched the Stanford attack. Beyond that, both were captains.
It's going to take a mentality, a hunger, a drive, a desire, to prove that we deserve to win the whole thing.
"The difficult thing is that the two starters we lost were tremendous leaders," Ratcliffe said. "For me, finding the right internal leadership on the field is what can help propel this team to win a national championship. Who are the internal leaders going to be?"
Questions on offense
It's not just Press' 26 goals the team must absorb, but the focus of the offense and the change in approach. The Cardinal returns 43 goals (58 percent) from last year, but will have to depend on a multi-faceted attack rather than funnel the offense through one or two players as the team had done with Press and Kelley O'Hara, the 2009 Hermann winner.
Last year, Stanford led the country in goals (74) and was third in scoring average (2.85 goals per game).
"You have to find the right chemistry," Ratcliffe said. "You have to find the players that will emerge as goal scorers. In the past we've had superstars who were scoring bunches of goals. Now, it's going to be more collectively."
A year ago, the front line consisted of Press, Lindsay Taylor, and Camille Levin, who also started in defense and midfield. Taylor (11 goals), a 2008 first-team All-American is the team's top returning scorer and fellow senior Levin (2 goals, 11 assists) scored a tiebreaking goal against Boston College in the NCAA semifinals. However, only Taylor is expected to reprise her role up front.
Converted defender Courtney Verloo may handle much of the scoring load. Verloo, a junior, was a spot starter at forward as a freshman before filling a need in central defense last season, earning third-team All-America honors.
"We need her goal-scoring," Ratcliffe said. "She's a player that could emerge as a superstar and score a bunch of goals for us if she gets hot."
But filling Press' spot has created something of a domino affect, with other players shifting positions. With Verloo moving forward, redshirt freshman Kendall Romine appears to be the replacement for Verloo, alongside Alina Garciamendez in the back.
Romine, coming off a broken leg suffered during her senior year of high school, was expected to contend for that spot last year, but aggravated the injury during training camp and redshirted. After missing two seasons, Romine has been impressive thus far.
The versatile Levin has been training mostly at outside back, adding her speed, scoring and playmaking sense to a left outside back spot that also could be occupied by incumbent Annie Case, as well as swift sophomore Natalie Griffen.
Stanford uses its outside backs as wingers, moving up the flanks to deliver crosses or add numbers in the box. Two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer Rachel Quon, now a junior, had 2 goals and 5 assists from the right side and her forays deep into the defense caused havoc. Ratcliffe is hoping to create the same threat on the left.
Though Levin could see duty at forward, particularly through mid-game adjustments, the early season is an open tryout for the third forward spot.
"My goal is to find three players that are goalscorers, who can score and create goals," Ratcliffe said. "We have a lot of options. It's who's getting hot at the right times and who's going to show me that they're going to score a goal. That's going to be the difference. I want a player in there that's going to score."
Sophomore twins Sydney and Shelby Payne and junior Marjani Hing-Glover are possibilities, as is intriguing freshman Chioma Ubogagu, a big-time recruit from Texas and a player Soccer America has deemed as one of its "Ten Freshmen of Influence."
"If you can find a freshman that can come in and be an impact player in their first year, you find a superstar, no doubt about it," Ratcliffe said. "The first year can be difficult, but every once in a while there are players that come in and they're superstars. My hope is that there will be a couple that will step in and show us what they can do."
Alex Doll is another freshman who could immediately help, as the team seeks a replacement for McCann. Doll is among the frontrunners in a competition that may be the most competitive in camp, with senior Kristy Zurmuhlen and junior Nina Watkins contending for that position as well.
All-Americans Teresa Noyola, a senior attacking mid, and Mariah Nogueira, at junior defensive mid, are locked into the other two spots. Noyola (10 goals, 12 assists in 2010) and Garciamendez have the added advantage of having played for Mexico in the 2011 World Cup this summer.
"Every year I've coached them, I feel they have an added level of professionalism about them," Ratcliffe said of Noyola and Garciamendez. "They take it very seriously. Every training session they take very seriously. Their leadership qualities are growing as well as their experiences."
The defense, anchored by sophomore goalkeeper Emily Oliver, allowed only 12 goals last season and posted 14 shutouts. Oliver, who moved into the starting spot in the sixth match, allowed only 0.31 goals per match - the second-best season mark in Stanford history - and only one first-half goal.
The pieces seem to be in place. Now, it's a matter of chemistry and familiarity. If Stanford (48-2-2 the past two seasons) can duplicate its recent success and advance to its fourth consecutive NCAA College Cup, the final step will be the most difficult.
What might make the difference?
"It's the mental approach," Ratcliffe said. "You have to be so hungry going into that final. I think we've gone into the finals happy with where we're at and content instead of going in to prove something. Maybe that's it.
"But in saying that, they were both 1-0 games against good opponents and we played OK. We didn't play our best, and I want see us play our best in the final game."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics