It was this time nearly a year ago.
A battle-tested Stanford women’s soccer team had set out to capture the school’s first national championship, having faltered in the Final Four in each of the past three seasons and in the title match in each of the past two.
Redshirt junior Courtney Verloo remembers one of those lazy summer days quite well.
A returning starter at central defense entering her junior year, Verloo remembers feeling her left knee “blown out” after a “weird plant” during an intrasquad match last preseason. Having sustained both a small meniscal tear and a tibial plateau fracture in her left knee—injuries associated with extended recovery time—she watched from the sideline for the entire 2011 season, supporting the teammates she started 24 games with during her sophomore year.
“It was different just having to sit back and watch,” Verloo said, referring to Stanford’s unprecedented dominance (25-0-1, 11-0 Pac-12) en route to the program’s first NCAA championship. “But it was amazing to watch.”
Now fully recovered, Verloo figures to play a key role in her team’s title defense. But she’ll no longer be playing defense like she did her sophomore season. The Cardinal will need her to score.
“I think it will be a fine transition,” said the speedy Verloo, who played forward during her freshman year on the Farm and for her entire high school and youth careers. “I’m comfortable up front, and I’m excited to play up there again.”
Verloo returns to a perennially potent Stanford attack recently ravaged by the graduations of key players, including the loss of last season’s top female college soccer player in Teresa Noyola, a midfielder who has led Stanford in assists in each of the past two seasons.
“More of the younger players are going to step it up this year,” Verloo said. “But we definitely still have a great amount of talent.”
Losing a Hermann Trophy winner to graduation has become almost standard for the Cardinal, which has lost one in each of the past three seasons. While the program maintained its dominance after the graduations of Kelley O’Hara in 2010 and Christen Press in 2011, recovering from the most recent string of graduations may be slightly more challenging.
This season, not only will the team be without Noyola; it must also contend without four of its top six point scorers from last season—players who accounted for nearly 60 percent of the Cardinal’s goals. Furthermore, one of Stanford’s top two returning scorers, sophomore forward Chioma Ubogagu, will miss as many as six preseason matches while playing on the United States under-20 national team in the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“We’re going to really miss Chi just because she adds so much to an attack,” Verloo said. “But I think it will be good for other players to get a chance to play up there and hopefully make a big impact, so we can just have a more dynamic attack overall.”
Despite the apparent exodus of an attacking talent that outshot the opposition by 142 shots on goal and scored more than eight times as often as its opponents did in 2011, 10th-year head coach Paul Ratcliffe remains excited by the “extreme talent” of his team and its chance to compete for a fourth consecutive Pac-12 championship and second consecutive national title.
“We control our own destiny,” Ratcliffe said. “We have to train hard and improve with every training session and find the right chemistry among the players and get a little bit of luck down the line.”
Ubogagu, for one, has been training for the entire offseason—saying she has “never had an offseason training that hard or that physical.” She is poised to be one of the primary weapons for the Cardinal during conference play after tallying 10 goals and 10 assists in 25 starts during her freshman year.
“Just being with the Stanford team…everyone wants to get better every day,” she said. Ubogagu hopes her offseason workouts will only add to her greatest strength as a scorer—“attacking atpeople.”
With the return of Verloo and the continued emergence of Ubogagu, Stanford seems poised for another deep run in the NCAA tournament. UCLA and Oregon State provide tough competition in conference play, says Verloo. Duke and Wake Forest are poised to dethrone the Cardinal in the national title hunt, says Ubogagu. But both women acknowledge that any team could contend.
“We need to realize we’re a target. Never relax. Never get complacent,” Verloo said. “We need to make sure we’re always preparing right and staying competitive every day.”
Ratcliffe reiterated this sentiment; he believes that repeating in the “very challenging Pac-12 conference” will be difficult because “there’s more and more parity in women’s soccer.” However, no one can discount the Cardinal’s experience. The sophomores have won a national championship. The juniors have competed in the title game for two consecutive years, the seniors for three. All the while, none of these current players may have carried the team for an entire season—not yet, at least.
“Having the experience helps us; it doesn’t hurt us,” Verloo said. “I think it will help having the experience. Knowing what it’s like to win, everybody just wants it more again.”
Stanford returns eight starters from last season: Ubogagu, senior forward Marjani Hing-Glover, junior forward Sydney Payne, senior midfielder Mariah Nogueira, senior defender Alina Garciamendez, senior defender Rachel Quon, redshirt sophomore Kendall Romine and junior goalkeeper Emily Oliver.
However, carving out an identity distinct from the championship teams of past years may be the most daunting task that lies ahead—not simply for the individual players, but also for the team.
“We’re proud of what we accomplished last year, but this is a new team,” Ratcliffe said. “This team wants to prove they’re the best team out there. Last year, they proved that they were the best team in the history of Stanford women’s soccer, and this team wants to prove the same.”