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W. Soccer: NCAA title defense begins tonight against Idaho State

After a tight victory over rival Cal in Berkeley last weekend granted the No. 1 Cardinal (17-1-1 Pac-12) its fourth consecutive undefeated Pac-12 season, Stanford must now refocus as it turns its eyes toward the real prize, an NCAA title. On Friday the defending national champions and overall No. 1 seed welcome Idaho State (11-5-3) for the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Senior defender Alina Garciamendez (right) proved herself as a clutch playoff performer last year when she scored a goal in the national semifinal against Florida State. She will help Stanford begin its defense of the 2011 NCAA title tonight when it opens the postseason against Idaho State. (AVI BAGLA/The Stanford Daily)

Against the Golden Bears, a fourth-minute goal was the only tally of the match. Redshirt junior forward Courtney Verloo finished sophomore forward Chioma Ubogagu’s cross following an impressive run down the sideline that beat two defenders. Stanford held Cal to a shutout, though the Bears were particularly threatening late in the match, with shots coming off the crossbar and the post. Nonetheless, the win was the team’s 42nd straight in the Pac-12, meaning the senior class will finish a perfect 40-0 in the conference.

“It was a really good game before the tournament to prepare,” Verloo said. “I think it was a good reminder to us that every game in the tournament is going to be a good game and to make sure we finish our chances.”

In addition to being the reigning champs, the Card approaches the tournament looking for its fourth consecutive final and fifth-straight appearance in the College Cup. However, Stanford’s 16-team bracket holds tough competition. If it defeats Idaho State, the team will play the winner of Santa Clara (11-3-6) versus Long Beach State (12-7).

The main challenges within the bracket come from other seeded teams, like No. 3 UCLA (15-2-2) and No. 2 San Diego State (19-1-1), one of which Stanford will have to face to earn a spot in the College Cup. The Card defeated UCLA just two weeks ago in a tough comeback game that saw it squeeze out a 2-1 victory to secure the conference title. San Diego State also proved to be a narrow victory during the Santa Clara Classic, but a free kick from Courtney Verloo delivered the win.

Tight but well-earned victories have been the story of Stanford’s season. Seven of the past nine games have been won with one-goal margins, including the trip to Los Angeles two weeks ago that featured an overtime victory against USC along with the late comeback against UCLA. Verloo noted how this was a highlight for the team.

“In general this season has been amazing just because of the character this team has shown…I think that every time we’re able to come out of a game like that, like against UCLA or USC, it’s just been really exciting and given our team confidence,” she said.

But Stanford has also dealt a few thrashings this season.

Against Oregon State, for example, Stanford netted five goals, each coming from a different player. What’s more, the team has not lost or tied since back-to-back matches against West Virginia and Boston College in August.

Stanford’s first-round competition, Idaho State, returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 thanks to a 4-3 penalty shootout victory in the Big Sky Conference championship against University of Montana. The shootout featured three saves from freshman goalkeeper Sheridan Hapsic, who also stepped up in the Bengals’ conference semifinal win against Weber State. That game was also decided on penalties.

The Card also enters tonight’s game with a boost of confidence after the annual Pac-12 awards were announced earlier in the week. While a Stanford player did not win Pac-12 Player of the Year for the first time since 2008, five team members earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team, two made the All-Freshman team and two received other awards.

Stanford kicks off its playoff campaign tonight at 7 p.m. at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium.