NCAA title number 102 made its way to the Farm this week, but for the undefeated Stanford women’s soccer team, its run at the College Cup meant much more than the trophy it brought home.
When defender Camille Levin found midfielder Teresa Noyola waiting at the back post and Noyola headed in the first-ever goal in a College Cup final for the Cardinal (25-0-1), the two seniors put a conclusively positive stamp on careers that had been marked by three years of postseason disappointment.
Women’s soccer has been one of the few national titles that has seemed to just elude Stanford. Four times — in 1993, 2008, 2009 and 2010 — the Cardinal reached the Final Four only to meet heartbreak. Two years in a row, eventual Hermann Trophy winners were silenced in the College Cup final. And even as the Stanford squad demonstrated its national relevance year-in and year-out under head coach Paul Ratcliffe, it could never attain the dynasty status given to perennial champions North Carolina and Notre Dame.
That all changed Sunday.
“This team deserves it,” Noyola said. “We’ve worked extremely hard but have also shown great character to not let the heartbreaks of the last two seasons catch up [to us].”
Duke (22-4-1) pressured threateningly at times in the final, but solid play from the back line and another perfect performance from sophomore goalkeeper Emily Oliver between the pipes propelled Stanford to victory and the first undefeated season in school history.
“We didn’t think about any other game this year,” Levin said. “It was about this game. We knew we had to come out and keep possession and play our game.”
The Cardinal was doing just that against the Blue Devils early on and had several close misses in the first half. A header from junior midfielder Mariah Nogueira went just wide right in the third minute; freshman forward Chioma Ubogagu nearly drew a penalty kick with her evasiveness in the 22nd minute, but the referee held on to his whistle.
Stemming the tide, Duke countered with chances of its own and nearly snuck one by Oliver late in the half on a misplayed ball by the Stanford defense. Forward Molly Lester missed high, however, and the back-and-forth match was scoreless entering the half.
Though the Cardinal was controlling the tempo, the match still had the potential of turning into another close loss, like the consecutive 1-0 defeats Stanford had suffered in the two previous finals. In each, the Cardinal’s leading scorer — Kelley O’Hara in 2009 and Christen Press in 2010 — was held to three or fewer shots; on Sunday, 20-goal-scorer senior forward Lindsay Taylor entered the half with just one attempt.
But this time around, Ratcliffe wasn’t necessarily expecting the scoring to come from his top offensive players.
“[Duke has] a great defense,” he said. “They’re very hard to break down and score on…It was a very tight match.”
“I thought our outside backs were going to be the difference in the game,” Ratcliffe added later. “Duke’s back four is very solid. Their three in the midfield are hard-working players and we needed to get our outside backs forward to create a numerical advantage outside and try to get in crosses.”
Indeed, it was Levin and her fellow outside defender, Rachel Quon, who would define the second half. Quon drew a foul to set up a dangerous Noyola free kick two minutes into the half, although the Cardinal couldn’t capitalize. After a missed Stanford corner just a minute later, Blue Devil freshman sensation Kelley Cobb raced upfield, just one woman — Quon — to beat. But the junior held her own, and Levin swooped in from behind the play to end Cobb’s promising rush.
Then Levin made the play that Stanford soccer fans won’t soon forget. Taking a 53rd-minute feed from Ubogagu to the high right side of the box, Levin battled by two defenders as she moved towards the end line. Running out of real estate, she tried to cross to Noyola — who played youth soccer with Levin — but a Blue Devil defender blocked the attempt as Levin slipped to the turf. She scrambled to get to her feet, fed in another ball, and the rest is history.
“You’ve got to feel sorry for Duke because that’s unstoppable,” Ratcliffe noted. “They blocked her cross twice and she still got back up and crossed it to the back post.”
Noyola had already scored perhaps the biggest goal of the regular season for the Cardinal, an overtime header to beat Washington. And on a strikingly similar play Sunday, she added the biggest goal in Stanford soccer history to her resume.
“You don’t get that many opportunities at this stage,” Noyola said. “Camille played a great ball and that shows how connected we are. I knew exactly what she was going to do.”
The squad hadn’t lost a game in six years when scoring a goal, but after Oklahoma State tied up a similar game in the quarterfinals and took the Cardinal to sudden-death overtime, Stanford knew it still had its work cut out for it after Noyola’s tally.
An energized Molly Pathman, coming off a two-goal performance in the semifinals, re-entered the game for Duke in the 67th minute and made an instant impact. Taken down in the box just three minutes later, Pathman begged for a penalty but was not given one after Ubogagu had been similarly spurned in the first half. A minute later, Pathman found an open Laura Weinberg in the box but her left-footed deflection sailed high.
The barrage continued into the 73rd minute, when Kaitlyn Kerr pounced on a loose ball and forced Oliver to make a leaping save on her roaring shot from outside the box. On the ensuing corner, Weinberg almost found an opening but had her low strike blocked by Nogueira. Hanging by a thread, the Cardinal got the clear it needed.
“It was the longest 20 minutes of my life,” Oliver said, referring to the end of the game. “Everyone’s hearts were beating out of their ears.”
And they would keep doing so late into the match. Taylor and senior midfielder Kristy Zurmuhlen helped burn the clock with strong plays on the Blue Devils’ side of midfield, yet Duke fed the ball back into the final third time and time again. It looked like they had a shot even into the 89th minute, when the Blue Devils drew two corner kicks.
The Cardinal fended them both off, the same way it had fended off the heartbreak that’s been building up since 2008, and just minutes later the team was wearing NCAA Champion hats and T-shirts.
“This win caps off four tremendous years at Stanford,” Ratcliffe said. “The last four years, this team has been incredible, and they’ve shown such great character to have all those setbacks and come back and fight through and achieve our goal of winning a national championship.”
And when the most accomplished senior class in Stanford soccer history — Taylor, Noyola, Levin and Zurmuhlen — walked off the field wearing cardinal and white for the last time on Sunday, they did so with more than just a 95-4-4 career record and four trips to the College Cup behind them. This time, they took home a trophy.
And so much more.