For most teams in the country, qualifying for the NCAA semifinals would make for a successful season. But for the defending national champions, anything but another title would be a disappointment.
“The goal is not just to get back [to the College Cup], the goal is to win a national championship,” said Paul Ratcliffe, women’s soccer head coach. “We’re happy to be back there, but we’re not satisfied.”
The No. 1 Cardinal reached its fifth consecutive Final Four after a thrilling 2-1 victory over No. 6 UCLA. Sophomore Lo’eau LaBonta scored two goals in the second half as Stanford (21-1-1) rallied to erase an early Bruin lead for the second time this season.
The next challenge for Stanford is to take on No. 13 North Carolina on Friday night in San Diego.
UNC (13-5-3) boasts the most successful program in the history of collegiate soccer: In the 30 NCAA tournaments in history, 20 have ended with the Tar Heels lifting the trophy. For its most recent championship, North Carolina beat Stanford 1-0 in the 2009 title game. The Cardinal is 0-8-3 all-time against the Tar Heels.
UNC head coach Anson Dorrance constantly juggled his lineup during the regular season, as starters left the team to compete in youth world cups. But with a full stock of weapons back at his disposal, Dorrance’s team has been peaking at the right time.
In the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels exploded for a 9-2 win over Illinois.
The Tar Heels’ next two games both went into extra time. In the third round, UNC dispatched Baylor in a penalty kick shootout after extra time ended with the score locked at one. UNC’s quarterfinal match then went deep into double overtime before Crystal Dunn gave the Tar Heels a 2-1 victory over BYU.
“Anson Dorrance is one of the greatest coaches ever in women’s soccer,” Ratcliffe said. “We expect a really difficult match. They have some fantastic athletes so they’re always a strong program.”
Both teams boast heavy star power all over the field. For UNC, Dunn, a member of the U20 USA national team, leads the charge. The junior has racked up 13 points this season — including all three goals against Baylor and BYU —while playing all over the field.
Stanford will also have its hands full with UNC freshman Summer Green. The forward leads the Tar Heels in scoring with 21 points, despite only playing in 15 matches due to the U17 World Cup. Overall, the Tar Heels have seven players with double-digit point totals.
Senior Adelaide Gay, who enters the game having let in an average of just .64 goals per game, will be manning the net for the Tar Heels.
Stanford has its own U20 national team star in sophomore Chioma Ubogagu. The forward has five goals and 11 assists in 17 games for the Cardinal.
While redshirt junior Courtney Verloo tops the scoring charts with 31 points, Cardinal goals can come from anywhere. In the NCAA tournament alone, six different players have scored for Stanford.
On defense, seniors Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon were both recently chosen as semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy, the most prestigious honor in collegiate soccer. Both players are captains and four-year starters.
Behind the backline stands junior Emily Oliver, arguably the best goalkeeper in the country. Since returning from injury earlier this season, the All-American has let in an average of .47 goals per game, fifth in the nation and best of the remaining goalkeepers.
The biggest strength for the Cardinal, though, is leadership.
“This team has strong character and fantastic internal leadership,” Ratcliffe said. “We wanted to go to the College Cup and it was the leadership that got us there.”
This year’s 10-member senior class has reached the NCAA final in each of the past three seasons and captured the program’s first national championship last year.
“This whole season, we’ve played huge games and in front of a lot of people already,” Quon said after the UCLA game. “It’s just another game that we have to put away. It’s business as usual and we’ll take it one game at a time.”
To defeat the Tar Heels for the first time ever, Ratcliffe said his team has to be ready to compete from the opening whistle.
“[We have to play] with confidence and just have a good mindset at the beginning of the game,” Ratcliffe said.
The winner of the North Carolina-Stanford match will meet either Penn State or Florida in the finals on Sunday afternoon. The Cardinal beat Penn State 3-2 on Aug. 24 and has not played Florida State this year. According to Ratcliffe, Stanford has not thought about facing any opponent beyond the Tar Heels.
“The College Cup is a great showcase for women’s soccer,” Ratcliffe said. “I’m excited to be involved in the games and hang out with our team. For our seniors, it’s our last event together. And obviously, [I’m excited] for the opportunity to win a national championship.”