When this weekend is all said and done, the Stanford women’s soccer team will be embarking on either the second half of its potential NCAA Championship run or the very beginnings of yet another disappointing offseason. It takes six postseason victories to take home the College Cup, and the No. 1 Cardinal (20-0-1, 11-0-0 Pac-12) can notch wins number two and three at home on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
Stanford has reached the NCAA Final Four every year since 2007, but the squad can’t take the early rounds for granted.
“There are a lot of strong opponents out there, so we’ve got to perform at our highest level,” said head coach Paul Ratcliffe. “That’s basically the key. We’ve got to play well and then execute in the final third.”
The Cardinal should be at least moderately concerned in the latter regard going into tonight’s match against South Carolina (16-6-0, 9-2-0 SEC). Despite pounding outmatched Montana (6-12-4) with 13 shots on goal in the first round of the postseason last Friday, Stanford was only able to get on the board three times in a game many expected to be a blowout. Senior forward Lindsay Taylor notched a goal and an assist in 72 minutes of action, but was stonewalled by junior Grizzly goalie Kristen Hoon on three other occasions. The squad also had trouble finding the net despite controlling play in the season finale against Cal, a 2-0 win that saw the Cardinal score both of its goals in a 40-second span.
Stanford hasn’t played two matches on a weekend since late October, and if the team wants to continue into the fourth round of the postseason–or even make it to the third-round game this Sunday, for that matter–it will need to look sharper against the tougher competition it will inevitably face.
“We’re ready for it,” said sophomore goalkeeper Emily Oliver. “We had a couple of tough training sessions on Sunday in preparation for the two-game weekend that’s coming up, so I think we’re ready to go.”
Tonight, Stanford’s toughness will be tested against South Carolina in the late game at Cagan Stadium. The Gamecocks’ tight style of soccer has held opponents to just 16 goals on the season, and although South Carolina might not put up flashy offensive numbers, it does sport senior forward Kayla Grimsley–the only current Division-I player with more than 40 goals and 30 assists on her career.
Oliver may have faced some of the country’s best offenses in Pac-12 play, but as the tournament progresses she’s going to have to deal with even more powerful attacks. And though Oliver has the best goals-against average in the country (0.24), the defensive battle is not a one-woman effort.
“Our back line is awesome, our midfielders are great and defending starts with the forwards,” Oliver said. “Having everyone in front of me just gives me confidence, and I think we’ve prepared all season [for the tournament].”
Offensively, the Cardinal needs to receive continued contributions from Taylor, who has scored 10 goals over the past eight games and was named Pac-12 Player of the Year. While 13 other Stanford players have gotten on the board this season, none has scored more than half as many goals as the star senior, whose six game-winning tallies also lead the team.
After they lost in the College Cup Final in devastating fashion two years in a row and then bounced back and carry the squad during the second half of the conference season in 2011, expect Stanford’s quartet of seniors to set the tone this weekend.
“They’re all great leaders, and they want to get back to that championship game and correct things, win that national title,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re inspired and want to win the whole thing.”
Should the Cardinal advance past the Gamecocks, it will face the winner of the Friday-afternoon match between Boston College (12-5-2, 6-4-0 ACC) and Cal (12-6-3, 5-4-2 Pac-12). A Cal-Stanford showdown in the wake of Big Game weekend would surely be yet another heated chapter in this intense rivalry.
“That would be interesting…but regardless of who we play, I think we’ll be ready to go,” Oliver said. “If it’s Cal, great, and if it’s Boston College, great. But we’ve got to make it there first.”
That quest begins tonight at 7 p.m. at Cagan Stadium, with the Cardinal still riding an 84-match unbeaten streak when scoring at least one goal and a 47-match win streak overall. The winners of tonight’s two games will then meet on Sunday at 1 p.m. in search of an appearance in the quarterfinals.