Earlier this week, Stanford was singled out in the NSCAA poll as the nation’s No. 1 team. Now it’s up to the Cardinal (8-0-2) to defend that position and show why it has earned it.
The next test for the country’s top squad will come this Sunday as the Cardinal resumes one of its more competitive rivalries, hosting Bay Area foe Santa Clara. The match, the only one of the weekend, marks the final non-conference contest for the two top-25 teams.
Both squads have had successful seasons thus far, with No. 13 Santa Clara (7-2-2) suffering just a pair of losses and the Cardinal standing just one win away from a perfect non-conference season. But as talented as the two rivals are, Sunday’s game arrives during a relative high for the Cardinal and a low for the Broncos.
Stanford, which had a perfect season in 2009 before losing to North Carolina in the national final, had been relegated to the nation’s No. 2 team in 2010. The Cardinal earned draws against then-No. 7 Boston College and No. 1 North Carolina early in the season, and with last weekend’s combination of a 2-1 win over No. 3 Portland and North Carolina losing to a fourth-ranked Boston College squad, the Cardinal moved into the No. 1 spot for the first time this season.
“The team’s playing really well right now and we’re firing on all cylinders, so we’re excited to play [Santa Clara],” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe.
The Broncos, meanwhile, are coming off just their second defeat of 2010. After defeating Oregon 2-0 last Friday, the team flew to Los Angeles to take on another Pac-10 opponent, UCLA. Santa Clara ultimately lost to the Bruins 1-0, the same score that came in its only other defeat this season, which came early in September against Notre Dame.
However, the losses are certainly no reason to take Santa Clara lightly. When they played the Broncos, Notre Dame was ranked at No. 3 and UCLA at No. 15.
“It’ll be an interesting game,” Ratcliffe said. “It’s always a tough match because it’s a cross-town rivalry. It’ll be a hard game, Santa Clara’s a good team and I expect them to put up a tough fight for us.”
Any team would look to bounce back after a loss, but Santa Clara will have an extra chip on its shoulder against Stanford this weekend. The Broncos played the Cardinal twice last year, losing 6-2 early in the season before being eliminated from playoff contention in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in the Sweet 16.
The goal that knocked Santa Clara out of the tournament came on a 25-yard free kick from Teresa Noyola. The junior midfielder has a good chance of contributing to another Cardinal victory over Santa Clara this weekend–after notching six goals in each of her first two seasons, Noyola has already scored five this year.
Ratcliffe had nothing but praise for Noyola’s effort this year, and was quick to point out her contributions on the defensive side as well. Noyola herself acknowledges the change and credits the lessons she’s garnered over two years of play.
“I’m playing with more confidence I think, and more experience especially,” she said. “I’ve had ups and downs the past two seasons, and as hard as some of them were in the moment, I think looking back they helped me grow as a player and become more complete on both sides of the ball, and it’s shown in that I’m playing with more confidence.”
Adding to Stanford’s current “high” is the only Cardinal player with more goals than Noyola, Christen Press. The senior forward leads the nation in every scoring category with 30 points, 3.00 points per game, 13 goals and 1.30 goals per game. She broke Stanford’s all-time record for career points last weekend with her 153rd, passing Sarah Rafanelli’s mark of 152. She’s also one score away from Rafanelli’s record for goals (59) and three assists away from Marcie Ward’s record of 40. Adding to her long list of accomplishments, Press was recently named the Pac-10 Player of the Week for the second consecutive time.
Sunday’s game is Stanford’s last before facing a tough slate of conference opponents–the Pac-10 currently boasts four teams in the top 25. While he’s not going to change his game plan against the Broncos for the sake of preparation, Ratcliffe said he would be encouraged if he saw a better ability to finish on offense.
“I think we’ve been creating good chances, but I just want to see us capitalizing on them more and score quite a few goals,” he said. “You know, let’s get three goals, four goals.”
Stanford and Santa Clara will face off on Sunday at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium. The match is scheduled for 1 p.m.