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W. Soccer: Top-seeded Card opens postseason as host

After cruising through the 2010 season without dropping a single contest, it’s never been more important for Stanford to keep that streak alive. The Cardinal (18-0-2, 9-0 Pac-10) enters the NCAA Tournament on the heels of its second consecutive perfect Pac-10 season and stands as the unanimous No. 1 team in the country. One of four top seeds in the 64-team field, Stanford will play host to the opening two rounds this weekend.

Stanford kicks off the tournament on Friday at 7 p.m., taking on the 16th-seeded Sacramento State Hornets (9-9-1). The winner of that match will survive to play on Sunday afternoon against either Santa Clara (12-6-2) or Long Beach State (14-5-2), who face each other at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

The Cardinal is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. The team is making its 13th consecutive appearance in the Big Dance and has advanced past the first round in each of its past four tries. In its two most recent appearances, it got much further than that, reaching the Final Four before being eliminated–in 2008, the team lost in the semifinals to Notre Dame, and last season the Cardinal dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker in the title game to North Carolina after entering the match with a perfect record.

While there’s always a certain amount of frustration that goes along with coming so close to a championship only to fall short at the finish, Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe says the experience from those near-misses is invaluable.

“It certainly gives you added confidence, that you’ve been through the experience before and you know what to expect,” Ratcliffe said. “But it still takes looking at it game by game. You need to look at each game and play your hardest and put out a good effort.”

Rather than any specific advice, Ratcliffe says the biggest inspiration the younger players are taking from their experienced teammates is their attitude in postseason practice.

“It’s really just their intensity in preparation,” he said. “We’ve trained hard this week and the team is looking sharp, and for me it’s just that intensity that the younger players can learn from them.”

Among the freshmen learning from the team’s postseason veterans is goalkeeper Emily Oliver. With six shutouts and the nation’s third-best goals-against average at 0.299, she has been a key part of Stanford’s success and has earned her place as the team’s go-to starter in lieu of senior Kira Maker. In her most recent outing, Oliver shut out Oregon State to seal a share of the Pac-10 title.

“Emily had a fantastic performance against Oregon State, which was one of our stronger opponents, so she really separated herself that she’s the best goalkeeper for me right now,” Ratcliffe said. “But in saying that, if there are any concerns, Kira filled in on Senior Day [against Oregon] and had a fantastic performance as well, so we really have a luxury right now in that we have some really good goalkeepers.”

Ratcliffe may be happy with his keepers on the defensive side, but Stanford’s most prominent player this season is no doubt on offense. Senior forward Christen Press enters the tournament leading the nation in points per game (2.65), goals (23) and total points (53). With 39 assists, she’s also just one away from Stanford’s all-time record of 40, set by Marcie Ward in 2004. In recognition of her incredible season, Press was named the Pac-10 player of the year earlier this week. In the same release, the conference also named Ratcliffe as the Pac-10 coach of the year for the third consecutive season.

As the Cardinal’s first opponent in the tournament, the Hornets are riding high after defeating top-seeded Northern Arizona, 1-0, to win the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Senior forward Leah Larot, a San Jose native, leads Sacramento State’s offense with 10 goals and 21 points as her team heads for the second NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.

“Sacramento State is a good team,” Ratcliffe said. “The key is that we have to jump out on them early and be aggressive, but I don’t expect to blow them out. It’s a game that we’ll have to earn the victory and prove that we’re the better team.

The Hornets’ last appearance in the NCAAs came in 2007, when they also played the Cardinal in the first round. Stanford won the game handily, defeating Sacramento State 7-0.

This year’s Stanford squad has experience against other teams in the tournament as well. The Cardinal has played 13 of the 64 teams in the tournament field this season, going a combined 11-0-2. The two draws came against Boston College and North Carolina, a pair of teams that were in the top five at the time.

After watching the Broncos and 49ers square off at 4:30 p.m., Stanford will open up its postseason run against Sacramento State at 7 p.m. tonight. The winners of the doubleheader will then face each other on Sunday at 1 p.m. All games will take place at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium.