After recording a 3-0 win over Miami (OH) on Tuesday, the No. 11 Stanford field hockey team qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time in school history and the fifth time in the last six years.
The Cardinal (16-6, 6-0 NorPac) enters the tournament riding a seven-game win streak, but faces a tough road as it meets No. 1 North Carolina in the first round tomorrow from Chapel Hill, N.C.
Stanford is 0-11 all-time in NCAA tournament games. Last season, the Cardinal lost in the NorPac finals and had to rely on an at-large bid to get into the 16-team field. Stanford then fell to Duke 5-0 in the first round.
“This year, we played into a spot, leaving no stone unturned, which has been fantastic,” said head coach Tara Danielson. “This was the goal from the beginning — to get into the NCAA tournament and not just get there but perform. I think we are right on track for the expectations of the program.”
The Cardinal has already faced the Tar Heels once this season, also in Chapel Hill. On Sept. 23, Stanford lost 6-2. In that game, the Cardinal jumped out to a 1-0 lead just eight minutes into the game, but the Tar Heels came back with five unanswered goals before halftime.
“Let’s face it, UNC is a very, very polished team,” Danielson said. “They were clearly the best in the country early this season, no doubt about it. However, we’re quite different than when we saw them in September. We’ve improved probably 25 percent since last time that we played them.”
UNC comes into the game as the ACC champion after defeating defending national champion Maryland 4-2 in the final — the Tar Heels have not lost since Sept. 1.
The Tar Heels are led by three-time All-American senior midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick and two-time All-American senior back Caitlin Van Sickle.
But Stanford has an All-American of its own in defender Becky Dru, who was recently named NorPac Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. The Cardinal will look to Dru, who has a team-high 35 points, to lead the team to an upset in what could be the senior’s final game.
The Cardinal will be bolstered by the presence of All-Conference players Kelsey Harbin and Maddie Secco. During the team’s first matchup against the Tar Heels, both Harbin and Secco were absent from the game to compete in the Junior Pan American Championships.
“I think [the presence of Harbin and Secco] just puts all the pieces of the puzzle together for our team,” Danielson said. “We’ve really been building and shaping the team, so by having those two players it creates a different look and a different feel to the program.”
The game will start at 8:30 a.m. Pacific time in Chapel Hill, N.C. The team is well acclimatized to the time difference, since they have been on the East Coast since the NorPac tournament began on Nov. 1.
“We’ve allocated a lot of study hours,” Danielson laughed. “The girls should actually be getting ahead [in school] because they have so much study time here. They are taking it in stride.”
Despite the strong opposition, Danielson remained optimistic about her team’s chances.
“We’re excited to play UNC. We’ve already played them once this year, so we have an idea of what they look like,” Danielson said. “They’re clearly the No. 1 team in the country, but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
The winner of the Stanford-UNC match will play the winner of Old Dominion-Michigan on Sunday morning.