Aug. 16, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford is the defending NCAA women's soccer champion and the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
This year, the goals remain the same as ever, but the team is sure to be different.
With the loss of four starting seniors - including three first-team All-Americans -- Stanford will need to reinvent itself. Not in style, but in chemistry. With a deep team that mostly lacks for clear divisions in talent, coach Paul Ratcliffe's challenge will be to find that right combination among close-to-equal choices.
As it heads into Friday's opener against visiting Santa Clara, the Cardinal can ride its tradition of success to some extent, having reached the NCAA College Cup the past four seasons and played in three consecutive NCAA finals. Stanford hasn't lost a regular-season match since 2008, or lost at home since 2007.
The tradition pays off in the confidence of having played and won the biggest matches, and from being a three-time unbeaten conference champion. But that doesn't preclude Stanford from having to grow into a national championship contender, especially on offense.
The Cardinal begins the year without its top seven scorers from last season, because of graduation, injuries, and the call-up of top returning scorer Chioma Ubogagu to the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team. Stanford returns 34 of last year's 73 goals. That 47 percent figure is the lowest for any Stanford team since 2004.
However, Paul Ratcliffe, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year the past four seasons, doesn't think it's necessarily a bad thing.
"It's a work in progress," Ratcliffe said. "It's different without Chi being there, because she's such a young talent. So, we're trying to adjust. But, overall, it's going to be really healthy for the long term because we're developing all the players - the entire team. So, when Chi comes back, it will be a huge boost to the squad.
"Initially, there might be some growing pains. Later on down the line, it's going to be pretty good."
The progress of Courtney Verloo is crucial as well. It's been three years since the fourth-year junior played forward. Now, she's back after filling a need on defense while earning All-America honors in 2010 and missing 2011 with an injury while returning to the front line. Ratcliffe still believes Verloo still could become the offensive threat that he envisioned when she arrived off the U.S. U-17 World Cup team.
"She needs to get a little bit sharper," Ratcliffe said. "But you can see the talent. And you can see her getting sharper with every training session."
Ubogagu could miss as many as six Stanford matches, depending on far the U.S. advances in the U-20 event in Japan. No one on the team can match her dexterity and skill on the ball, but her absence provides an invitation for other forwards to prove themselves. Among them: juniors Sydney Payne, Natalie Griffen and Taylor McCann.
Whether anyone can follow Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press, and Lindsay Taylor on a Stanford streak of 20-goal scorers remains to be seen, but it's easy to forget that there were questions before each of those players - all national players of the year -- seized control of the offense.
The latest in Stanford's three-year string of Hermann Trophy winners, attacking midfielder Teresa Noyola, may be the most difficult to replace. No one, perhaps in the country, can offer what the skillful playmaker did in 2011 and throughout her Cardinal career. However, Stanford will counter with two new midfield starters who hope to place their own stamp on the program.
Freshman Kate Bettinger, a product of San Francisco's St. Ignatius Prep, had an impressive preseason camp and could step into a starting role in Noyola's spot. Sophomore Alex Doll is another in a deep pool of midfield players that also includes sophomores Hannah Farr, a Stanford all-conference lacrosse player, and Lo'eau LaBonta, trying to shake an early-season injury.
The rock is four-year starter Mariah Nogueira in a holding midfielder role. Nogueira is dangerous as a target on set pieces and has been elected as a tri-captain, along with defenders Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon.
All three are part of a 10-player senior class (three still will have remaining eligibility) that has transformed the program as much as the class of '11, which went 95-4-4.
"This is a great class," Ratcliffe said. "Hopefully, they can end on a high note by winning a national championship - because they deserve it for all they've done for Stanford women's soccer."
The class of 2013 has never lost a regular-season match and has had plenty to do with that success based on having three of its members moving into the realm of four-year starters.
Among the seven returning starters from last year's title team, four are in defense - Garciamendez and Kendall Romine in the middle, Quon on the outside, and College Cup Defensive MVP Emily Oliver in goal. Also in the mix are freshmen Laura Liedle at outside back and freshman Maya Theuer or senior Madeleine Thompson in the middle.
Oliver led the nation in goals-against average last season (0.23) and the team registered 18 shutouts and allowed only nine goals. Veterans Lindsay Dickerson and Aly Gleason, or freshman Sarah Cox could start if needed.
As for a national championship ... "It will be a personal disappointment if it doesn't happen," Nogueira said. "I hold my team to a high standard, so I expect that."
That doesn't mean the team is there yet, but it plans to arrive at the destination all the same.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics