Sept. 23, 2012
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STANFORD, Calif. - There's something familiar about conference play. For the Stanford women's soccer team that means a venture into a land in which it hasn't lost for four years.
That feeling of confidence carried over into the second half of its Pac-12 opener Sunday against Arizona State when Courtney Verloo had a goal and an assist within a seven-minute span to spark Stanford to a 3-0 victory.
That makes 32 consecutive conference victories for the three-time defending champion Cardinal, which now must lift its game even further when No. 24 Oregon State arrives Thursday in a match that promises to have title implications.
But at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium on Sunday, the familiarity theme had additional meaning. Emily Oliver, a 2011 third-team All-American and the College Cup Defensive MVP, entered the match at halftime to make her first appearance of the season.
Oliver had been sidelined by injury, but combined with starter Aly Gleason to extend Stanford's shutout streak to five matches -- a total of 503 minutes, 19 seconds. Together, they made three saves for No. 3 Stanford (7-1-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12), which also increased its home unbeaten string to 59.
"It was so great to be back out there ... finally," Oliver said. "Just an unbelievable feeling."
Coaches must now make some choices regarding a position that appears deeper than ever.
Oliver, a starter the past two years, has a career goals-against average of 0.26 - a figure that would rank No. 1 in school history if her eligibility was over. Gleason has a season GAA of 0.55 and has made brilliant saves to preserve victories against Penn State and San Diego State. In addition, senior Lindsay Dickerson has been a spot starter and has a career GAA of 0.53.
"It's hard decision, because Aly Gleason has been amazing for us," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "But Emily's also an incredible goalkeeper. She has a great presence, she's a great leader. It's going to be a difficult decision from here on out, with quite a few fantastic goalkeepers to decide on."
The move to Oliver was one of four switches Ratcliffe made to the lineup at the start of the second half from the original group that started the match. At that point, there was no score, and ASU (4-5-1, 0-1) had a 6-5 shooting advantage, including a rush in the final seconds of the half that nearly resulted in a goal.
Besides Oliver, Ratcliffe inserted two defenders -- freshman center back Maya Theuer and senior Annie Case at left outside back - and brought in Natalie Griffen, who gave the offense a boost late in the first half after coming off the bench.
Griffen, perhaps the fastest player on the team, immediately attacked the ASU backline. And, in the 56th minute, her effort paid off. Verloo worked a combination with Chioma Ubogagu, who released a through ball in the box that Griffen connected with, firing an open shot inside the right post.
Later, after Verloo converted a 63rd minute penalty kick after Lo'eau LaBonta was fouled, Griffen was released on a breakaway. Though her shot was blocked by goalkeeper Chandler Morris, Taylor McCann pounced on the rebound for her first goal of the season and a 3-0 Cardinal lead.
"They had a high line in the back and it suits Natalie's game," Ratcliffe said. "So, that was the change we made at halftime, to adjust to that. It made a difference. We had quite a few breakaways. We could have scored more goals.
"Natalie's been a starter for us, so it was a hard decision to leave her out of the starting lineup. When she went in there, I thought she proved, `Hey, I should be starting.' And that's exactly what we want to see."
Stanford could be called a second-half team. Indeed, the Cardinal now has outscored opponents, 18-3, in the final 45 this season. On Sunday, that was reflected by more than its scoring differential, but also by its 14-2 shot advantage.
"We needed to prove that we were better than what we showed in the first half," Oliver said. "And I think we came out in the second half and had a strong performance, and did show what we were capable of."
Stanford can almost consider itself a first-half team, too, at least defensively. Over its 17 matches dating to last season, Stanford has shut out opponents in the opening half 15 times. Over the past 806 minutes, 8 seconds of first-half play, Stanford has allowed only two goals - a GAA of 0.22 -- and has shut out its past seven opponents in the opening 45.
The last conference team to score in the first half against Stanford was Oregon State, on Oct. 28, 2011. The Beavers (9-1, 1-0) enter Thursday's match with a 9-1 record.
"We're hoping it's going to be a great atmosphere," Ratcliffe said. "We're excited to compete and love playing at home, and Oregon State's a top-level team. It's going to be a real challenge for us."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics