According to sophomore Lo’eau LaBonta, the Stanford women’s soccer team is “all fighters.” It took every ounce of fight within the Cardinal — along with two second-half goals from LaBonta — to come back against No. 6 UCLA for the second time this season, this time in the NCAA quarterfinals.
With the 2-1 victory, the No. 1 Cardinal (21-1-1, 11-0 Pac-12) advanced to its fifth consecutive College Cup and will look to capture its second straight national championship next weekend.
Throughout the tournament, the trend for Stanford has been to grab an early lead and then ride out the win. On Friday night, the tables were turned when the Bruins notched the first goal. Less than eight minutes into the game, UCLA sophomore Sam Mewis received a pass from teammate Sarah Killion and fired a low shot just inside the post from 25 yards out.
Faced with an early deficit, Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe made several substitutions in an attempt to find the right combination to break down the Bruins. Similar to the teams’ Oct. 28 matchup, which decided the Pac-12 title, Stanford began to turn the tide when senior captain Rachel Quon moved from the back line to midfield.
With 12 minutes left in the half, Quon took a free kick from the left side, and senior Mariah Nogueira’s header narrowly missed. Stanford was also unable to capitalize on two corner kicks in the final moments of the half.
There was a scary moment for the Cardinal when Nogueira went down and had to be replaced after a hard collision with 30 seconds left in the opening period. But the captain, who has started every game for Stanford this season, would return for the second half.
Quon continued to send in dangerous free kicks and crosses early in the second half. Junior Sydney Payne and freshman Chioma Ubogagu also had opportunities, but UCLA goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland stood tall in net against the electric forwards. Prior to this game, the Bruins had not allowed a goal in the NCAA tournament.
“UCLA’s a fantastic team, and they came out strong and put us under pressure,” Ratcliffe said. “I think it was a big wake-up call for us. At halftime, we had to straighten things out and make a couple of adjustments.”
As it has done throughout the season, the Cardinal took advantage of set plays to get back into the game. In the 54th minute, redshirt junior Courtney Verloo swung a corner kick into Payne. The junior crossed the ball to LaBonta, who was waiting at the far post to redirect the ball into the net and tie the game.
“When [Payne] lined up to wind up and take a shot, I thought, ‘This is a great goalkeeper — it may ricochet off her,’ ” LaBonta said. “Luckily, it went right to me wide open in front of goal.”
According to UCLA coach B.J. Snow, the Bruins prepared specifically for Stanford’s corner kicks. Unfortunately for UCLA, it wouldn’t make much of a difference in the end, as the Cardinal’s winning goal also came from a corner.
In the 69th minute, a Verloo kick bounced off several players from both teams before arriving at the feet of LaBonta, who was perfectly positioned once again. The sophomore slotted the ball home from five yards out for her second goal of the night and fifth goal of the season.
“We knew we could do it,” LaBonta said. “I think they kind of beat us in the first half. They seemed like they wanted it more, but then we came back in the second half and we clearly just dominated that second half. It was great — all the girls fighting, nobody stopped, they gave every ounce they could for every second.”
After watching the lead slip away for the second time this season, UCLA fought desperately over the final 20 minutes of the game. Quon once again came up big to clear away a second-half breakaway. With 12 minutes left in the game, UCLA earned a dangerous free kick, but junior goalkeeper Emily Oliver was there once again to make the save. The All-American made six saves, some of the spectacular variety, to protect the lead.
“[The seniors] knew we needed to step up and be leaders on the team,” Quon said. “But we knew we had everybody behind us on the team. There’s 26 other girls on this team and I know they have our backs. You saw that today — Lo’eau LaBonta stepped up and put two away. I’m really happy with the win.”
The victory means that this year’s seniors officially end their careers unbeaten at Cagan Stadium, as the College Cup will be held in San Diego. Stanford has not lost at home in 67 games.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to jinx [the unbeaten streak] so I’ve never spoken about it,” Ratcliffe said. “But in their four-year career, they’ve never lost at home. They’ve never felt the feeling of losing here at home, which is truly incredible.”
The Cardinal will play No. 13 North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals next Friday, Nov. 30. The Tar Heels reached the semifinals by beating BYU 2-1 in double overtime.
Stanford lost to North Carolina 1-0 in the 2009 College Cup final. In the only other matchup since, the two teams battled to a 2-2 tie early in the 2010 season.
“[The return to the College Cup] shows great consistency, which is the thing I’m most proud of,” Ratcliffe said. “The high level of training that we’re doing and the work ethic of the team has propelled us to go to a fifth College Cup. And it’s an unbelievable experience when you get there, so we’re really looking forward to it.”
If Stanford can get by North Carolina, it will face the winner of Penn State-Florida State on Sunday in the national championship.