While the sting from last weekend’s heartbreaking 1-0 loss to California in the NorPac Championship may not have subsided yet, the No. 10 Stanford (17-3, 6-0 NorPac) field hockey team can look ahead to the postseason after earning its first ever at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Receiving the seventh seed, the Cardinal will begin play this weekend at host Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va. against tenth-seeded Duke (13-7, 2-3 ACC).
The bid caps what has been an incredible season for Stanford. Until the NorPac Championship, the team had not lost at home since Sept. 19, 2010. While some may rush to point out the Cardinal’s relatively weak conference schedule, Stanford regularly blew conference opponents out by three or more goals. Seven of the 17 wins were shutouts, including four consecutive games until Stanford’s 7-2 win over Davidson in the NorPac semifinals. The biggest win of the season came against Michigan, the eventual Big Ten Tournament runner-up, showing that the Card’s success is not just a product of geography.
Although Duke holds the weaker record and lower seed, the Blue Devils proved this season that they can hold their own against some of the nation’s strongest programs. The ACC is arguably the sport’s most competitive conference. ACC teams have been to the tournament championship 33 times, and at least one conference team has played in the final since 1992. The past nine champions and runner-ups have all been from the ACC, shutting out even Big East powerhouses like Connecticut and Syracuse.
Duke played at its best against the country’s top teams and is coming off a loss in the ACC Championship against No. 1 North Carolina. Duke is 2-3 against top-five opponents, and two of those losses came in double overtime. They also beat then-No. 1 Old Dominion, handing the Lady Monarchs their first of only two losses.
Against weaker teams, however, Duke has often played down to their opponents. Even in games where the Blue Devils dominated possession and offensive attack, the game-winning goals were often not scored until the final minute. Duke only narrowly defeated much weaker teams like Longwood, Boston University and Wake Forest by just one goal each. Seven of their games have gone on past regulation, which is impressive against teams like Old Dominion and North Carolina but questionable in losses against unranked Indiana and Virginia. While the loss in Bloomington was only the second game of the year, Virginia’s upset finished regular season play and came in penalty strokes after Duke could not convert in two overtimes.
Given the success and rank of Stanford, it is likely that Duke will show up hungry and ready to play. Goalkeeper Ale Moss and the rest of the Cardinal defense must stop sophomore Emmie Le Marchand, who leads the Blue Devils with 16 goals and is tied with senior Rhian Jones for seven assists. Jones and fellow senior Tara Jennings both have over 50 shots for the season, so Stanford must be prepared for Duke’s explosive offense. On the other side of the field, the Cardinal must attack early and often against Blue Devil redshirt senior goalkeeper Samantha Nelson, who boasts a .711 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 1.26. After failing to score against Cal, the Cardinal offense should be anxious to avenge its last loss and win its first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
If Stanford had won the NorPac Championship as most expected, it would have earned a play-in game to get to the NCAA Tournament. But with the unexpected loss, the Cardinal got a week of rest and drew a lower-ranked opponent. Yet play-in victors generally have the lowest seeds of the tournament, thus must immediately play the top. California, this year’s conference champion, is already out after it lost its play-in game to Richmond. If the Golden Bears had won, they would be on track to play Syracuse, the tournament’s No. 3 seed. Earning an at-large bid seems to have put the Cardinal in better position to secure its first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
Should Stanford do so, it will face the winner of the No. 2-No. 15 matchup between Old Dominion and Ohio State. Last weekend may not have ended the way the Cardinal was accustomed to, but after so many years of losing in the first round of the tournament, maybe the change in conventional wisdom is just what this team needed.
Stanford will face Duke tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Norfolk.