The No. 1 Stanford women’s soccer team marched on toward a second consecutive national championship with two wins this weekend in the NCAA tournament.
The Cardinal (20-1-1) rode two goals from redshirt junior Courtney Verloo to defeat No. 17 Santa Clara 2-1 in Friday’s second round match and then kept up its dominance with a 3-0 win over upstart Denver on Sunday. Stanford will face No. 6 UCLA in the quarterfinals.
Friday night’s matchup was much different than the 6-1 beatdown Stanford gave Santa Clara on Aug. 18.
As rain fell intermittently, both teams struggled to connect passes in the early going. Stanford’s first chance came 15 minutes into the game when Laura Liedle sent a high cross that was just out of the reach of senior Mariah Nogueira at the far post.
Ten minutes later, it was the Broncos’ turn. A turnover gave Santa Clara midfielder Dani Weatherholt a clear look from just outside the penalty box. The freshman fired a shot towards the upper corner, but Stanford goalkeeper Emily Oliver stretched to full extension to push the ball wide.
The Cardinal finally broke through with two goals in 10 minutes early in the second half.
In the 51st minute, forward Chioma Ubogagu outmuscled her defender to keep the ball inbounds along the Santa Clara endline. The sophomore drove towards the goal and slotted a pass back to Verloo, who snuck a shot between a defender’s legs and into the net.
“I give a ton of credit for that goal to [Ubogagu],” Verloo said. “She had the guts to split her two defenders, take it endline and play a great ball back to me. It was an easy finish because of her hard work.”
In the 60th minute, Verloo slalomed through four Bronco defenders before cracking a shot from 25 yards out that deflected off the underside of the crossbar and into the net for the forward’s team-leading 10th goal of the season.
Santa Clara didn’t fold in the face of the two-goal deficit. There were five yellow cards — three for Stanford and two for Santa Clara — handed out in the second half as both teams fought to continue their seasons.
“We know each other so well,” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe about the familiar opponent. “It’s always an emotional game, especially when you know that if you lose, you’re done for the season.”
In the 77th minute, Bronco goalkeeper Andi Tostanoski dove to block an Ubogagu free kick. The freshman then sent a long punt to a streaking Lauren Matheson. The Santa Clara forward crossed the ball to Weatherholt, who headed it past Oliver to cut the lead to one with 13 minutes remaining.
As the clock ticked down, the Broncos turned up the pressure, but Oliver came up big to fend off a flurry of opportunities and preserve the win.
“I thought we played OK. There was just so much emotion in the game, so I think we never really settled in and played like I wanted us to play,” Ratcliffe said. “Both goals were fantastic goals, so we had a few good sequences in the games. I thought we showed great character to prevail against a strong Santa Clara squad.”
Team captain Alina Garciamendez set a Cardinal record with her 99th career start, breaking the record set by Lindsay Taylor in 2011. The senior defender has started every game of her Stanford career.
On Sunday, much like the first round game against Idaho State, an early goal from Alex Doll set the tone for Stanford on the way to a 3-0 victory.
In the ninth minute, Verloo and Ubogagu combined to break down the Denver defense, setting up the opportunity for Doll to fire home a left-footed shot.
“The team started the game very strong,” Ratcliffe said. “We kept possession of the ball, created good opportunities, and I think that propelled us throughout the match.”
Despite outshooting the Pioneers 11-2 in the first half, the Cardinal couldn’t extend their lead before halftime. In the 21st minute, Verloo had another opportunity, but her shot from the top of the box went high.
Just before halftime, senior captain Rachel Quon created a chance by beating four Denver defenders, but couldn’t finish the play.
The Cardinal eventually doubled the lead on a beautiful half-volley by Nina Watkins. In the 57th minute, Lo’eau LaBonta laid the ball back to the senior midfielder, who fired the ball into the upper corner from 25 yards out.
Denver reached the third round by shocking No. 4 Maryland 3-2 in overtime behind a hat trick from junior Nicholette DiGiacomo. On Sunday, the Stanford defense shut down DiGiacomo and the Pioneer attack to register the team’s 11th shutout of the season.
The Cardinal put the game out of reach when junior Sydney Payne sent Ubogagu free on a breakaway. The sophomore forward calmly finished her fifth goal of the season with 12 minutes left.
The loss ended an exciting weekend for Denver head coach Jeff Hooker. Besides guiding his team to the program’s first Sweet 16, he also welcomed his first child on Saturday afternoon.
UCLA now stands between Stanford and a fourth consecutive Final Four berth. The quarterfinal match kicks off on Friday at 7 p.m. at Cagan Stadium. The Bruins will be looking for revenge — Stanford came back to beat UCLA 2-1 on the road last month and clinch the Pac-12 championship.
“There’s 10 of us seniors, so having all these girls together who I’ve gone through four years here at Stanford — we’ve been there,” Watkins said. “We’ve lost, we’ve won, we’ve felt all the emotions and now, finally our senior year, we don’t want to go away without a national championship.”