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Dec. 4, 2011
KENNESAW, Ga. - The comment revealed more than the few words it required.
"No tears this time," said one joyous Stanford player to goalkeeper Emily Oliver long after the Cardinal captured its first NCAA women's soccer title, with a 1-0 victory over Duke on Sunday at Kennesaw State.
"No," Oliver said. "There were tears."
One by one, her teammates admitted the same.
But this time, after suffering 1-0 losses in the College Cup final the past two years, the tears they shed were of joy.
Teresa Noyola's header in the 53rd minute was enough to give Stanford the victory and stamp the Cardinal as one of the greatest teams of all-time. Over the past four years, Stanford (25-0-1 this season) went 95-4-4 overall and 53-0-1 at home, but needed only a championship to justify its place among the greats.
"We've shown great character to not let the heartbreaks of the last two seasons catch up," Noyola said. "Not many teams can bounce back from heartbreaks like that. That in itself shows great character."
Indeed, and there was no better example than the effort Camille Levin displayed in setting up Noyola 'sgoal.
The sequence began with Levin, overlapping from her outside right back position. She sent a pass to Lindsay Taylor, who delivered another to Chioma Ubogagu just inside the midfield circle. The freshman then slipped a pass to Levin making a run.
Levin was tackled and stumbled, but regained her balance and kept possession as she attempted another cross, this one blocked by a defender, knocking both players down. But Levin got up first and continued her run.
With two defenders bearing down on her, she struck a second cross, this time finding Noyola, the tournament's Most Valuable Offensive Player, wide open at the far post for her ninth goal of the season.
The 5-foot-2 Noyola had scored a similar goal to beat Washington in overtime and sensed she would not be detected on a weakside run.
"The goal we scored, you've got to feel sorry for Duke because that's unstoppable," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "They blocked her cross twice and she still got back up and crossed it to the back post, it's so hard to stop that. Then the back post header, a tremendous goal."
Noyola won the tournament Most Valuable Offensive Player and Oliver the Most Valuable Defensive Player. But Levin could have won both. While there could be a case made for many players as Stanford's MVP this season, perhaps the biggest case could be made for the versatile senior.
Perhaps the coaches who select the winner of the Hermann Trophy, awarded to college soccer's most outstanding player, noticed as well.
"Cami has an unbelievable spirit about her," Ratcliffe said. "She's a competitive, driven person that deserves success. I had a feeling that she would get her success in this final four.
"The way to describe her is winner. She is a winner. That's why it's been hard to not win a national championship with her on the team. It took until this year."
Duke (22-4-1) pushed hard for the equalizer, holding back only two backs in an effort to flood the Stanford half, creating a series of dangerous chances over the final 20 minutes. On one, Stanford goalkeeper Emily Oliver came far out of the goal to push away a cross at the extreme edge of the penalty area, in traffic, only for Duke's Kim DeCesare to gather the rebound and fire. But central defender Alina Garciamendez blocked the shot.
Duke's Kaitlyn Kerr rocketed a shot from 28 yards that was dipping under the bar, but Oliver leaped high to tip it over.
Kendall Romine twice made courageous tackles in the penalty area. On one, the Duke fans howled incorrectly for a penalty. Though Romine took the player down, she got the ball first.
Time and again, the layers of Stanford defense made the plays, whether it was Levin slicing in front of a Blue Devil forward to pilfer the ball away, or Mariah Nogueira placing her body in the way of a hard shot.
"It was the longest 20 minutes of my life," Oliver said. "It was high pressure and I'm sure everyone's hearts were beating out of their ears. But I have complete confidence in my backline and my midfielders, and the whole team really, to deal with those situations. I think it's a stage that we've been to before."
Duke had two corner kicks in game's waning moments to keep the result in doubt until Stanford's Alex Doll cleared the ball away to allow the final delirious seconds to expire. And despite it all, Stanford posted its 18th shutout of the season.
The players seemed beside themselves. They dogpiled, they hugged, they dumped Gatorade on Ratcliffe. Romine and Oliver even made "snow" angels on the confetti-littered pitch.
And why not? "This team deserves it," Noyola said.
"I feel like people criticized us a little bit for not winning it the past couple years and I don't feel like that's the case," Ratcliffe said. "We played great teams when we lost. We played hard-fought games. Today, Duke did the same thing."
It's hard not to appreciate this championship without considering the losses to North Carolina and Notre Dame the past two years. With that in mind, this title seemed as much for players such as Christen Press, Kelley O'Hara - greats who lost in those finals - as well as for those such as Julie Foudy, Nicole Barnhart, and Rachel Buehler, who created the foundation of winning.
But the lasting legacy of being Stanford's first national champion will rest comfortably on the backs of four players - Levin, Noyola, Taylor, and Kristy Zurmuhlen -- the seniors who finally got what they "deserved."
"I'm going to miss them, no doubt about that," Ratcliffe said. "Kristy Zurmuhlen, she's just a fiery competitor. She's got the heart of a lion and I'm so proud of what she's done. She scored some critical goals in this playoff run and she's just a great story.
"Cami Levin, another champion for me, great soccer player. She can play anywhere on the field and she's a winner.
"Teresa Noyola, one of the more creative players that I've ever coached and a great brain for the game. She's like a coach on the field and her touch with the ball, it's unbelievable what she's done for this program.
"Lindsay Taylor is one of the great goal scorers I've coached, another fiery competitor.
"That's the thing about these four seniors, they're very competitive people, they love soccer, have a passion for soccer and they're great leaders and they care about all their teammates. It's really fitting that they should win the national championship."
As the team celebrated in a Kennesaw restaurant after the game, Zurmuhlen clutched the championship trophy with both arms. Her story was a poignant one, coming from a small town (Walpole, N.H.) and trying and, in her mind, sometimes failing to make a difference during her first two years, sometimes not even suiting up for games.
Without the breathtaking skills of some of her teammates, Zurmuhlen persevered until establishing herself as a senior with her grit and hustle. Perhaps that was the missing piece to the championship puzzle, the fight that symbolized what Stanford required to become a truly great team.
It took Zurmuhlen four years to experience that moment, to hold a championship trophy like a baby. And, like her Stanford teammates, they weren't going to let it go.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics