It’s heartbreak all over again.
Heading into the national championship game with an undefeated record for the second year in a row, No. 1 Stanford (23-1-2) was unable to find an offensive rhythm as it fell to an aggressive Notre Dame squad, 1-0. Freshman keeper Emily Oliver made six great saves on the Irish’s 14 shots, but was unable to stop an uncontested one-timer by Adriana Leon in the 63rd minute.
Stanford had a good look against the Irish (21-2-2) early in the first half when sophomore defender Courtney Verloo hit the left post, but Notre Dame took control from there. The Big East champions were able to disrupt Stanford’s possessive style of play, forcing corners and free kicks throughout the first half and forcing Oliver to make some stunning saves.
Melissa Henderson had one of Notre Dame’s best chances when she knocked a header from just outside the right post in the 22nd minute. Leaping to her left, Oliver was just able to punch it into the crossbar for the ricochet. Henderson, Notre Dame’s leading scorer with 17 goals, continued to penetrate the Stanford defense, drawing Cardinal defenders and finding good chances in the box. She nearly found the net again when she failed to connect on a bouncing centering pass in the 33rd minute that could have left her in front of an open net.
Stanford’s offensive leader, Christen Press, was unable to find similar chances for the Cardinal. Press led the country with 26 goals in as many games this season, but had just three shots in the match, and went without a look at the goal from the 18th minute until the 84th. Whatever chances her teammates were able to fire off, Irish keeper Nikki Weiss was able to stop.
At the 35-minute mark, the Cardinal was keeping pace with the Irish in shots at 4-4, though most of Stanford’s opportunities were coming from 20 yards out or more. Notre Dame had two shots on goal at that point, compared to zero for Stanford. The Cardinal managed to end the match with a narrow 15-14 shooting advantage.
As the second half opened, though, Stanford’s quality chances seemed few and far between in the face of a disruptive Notre Dame midfield. The Cardinal earned one of its better glimpses at the goal in the 56th minute, with Press maneuvering on the right side of the Irish zone and drawing a trio of defenders before sending the ball to an open Mariah Nogueira a few yards out from the left post. The sophomore midfielder controlled for a moment before knocking it just above the crossbar, holding her head in frustration for a moment afterwards.
Oliver continued to make impressive punch-out saves against the quick Irish attack, but the freshman met her match in the 63rd minute. Henderson charged in on left of the goal to open the scoring play, drawing the attention of the Stanford defense, including Oliver. Before stepping out of bounds near the left post, she knocked a crossing pass to an uncontested Adrianna Leon in the center of the box. The freshman from Maple, Ontario found the ball as Oliver struggled to get back into position, then one-timed a high shot that beat the Stanford keeper just under the crossbar to give the Irish a 1-0 lead.
The Cardinal deficit marked the first time Stanford had trailed since Sept. 10, against Georgia.
Following a 68th-minute timeout, Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe began to send his back line farther into the attacking zone, looking for any way to get a goal. The Cardinal had a few good chances on free kicks and dumps into the box, but as the clock wore on things looked bleaker and bleaker for Stanford, who lost a similar 1-0 game in the final against North Carolina a year ago.
As the Irish controlled the ball at midfield with time expiring, fourth-seeded Notre Dame earned its third national championship and became the lowest seed ever to win the title. The Irish defeated three seeded teams to reach the final, including defending champion North Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 20 championships in 29 years, including national finals against Notre Dame in 2008 and Stanford in 2009.
Stanford, meanwhile, misses out on its first national championship after being defeated in three consecutive College Cups. A win would have also earned the 100th NCAA team championship for Stanford’s athletic program.