In my two years as a Stanford student, I’ve witnessed two remarkably different seasons of Cardinal athletics.
Everything went according to plan in 2011-12, and Stanford’s outgoing seniors were the ones leading the charge. Senior Andrew Luck led football to perhaps the most dominant season in school history. Seniors Teresa Noyola and Lindsay Taylor won Cardinal women’s soccer its long-awaited first national title. Senior Nneka Ogwumike took women’s basketball back to the Final Four. Senior Pallavi Menon scored late in the women’s water polo NCAA final to secure another Stanford championship. Senior Andrew Zimmermann fueled men’s basketball to an unexpected NIT title with an unexpected resurgence in his final season.
2012-13 hasn’t gone that smoothly. The football team lost two early road games. Women’s soccer and water polo fell just short of defending their title. Women’s basketball missed the Final Four for the first time in six years, while men’s basketball couldn’t make it out of the second round of the NIT. And the baseball team, fresh off two Super Regional appearances, missed the postseason altogether despite the return of Mark Appel, who yesterday was picked first overall by the Houston Astros in the MLB Draft.
The senior leadership has still been there, I’m sure of it; look no further than fifth-year football players Chase Thomas and Sam Schwartzstein. But some of the biggest on-field performances on the Farm this year have come courtesy of freshmen and sophomores, inexperienced student-athletes who stepped up in key moments to put together one of the most exciting seasons of Stanford athletics in recent memory.
Football’s Kevin Hogan was thrown into the fire perhaps more suddenly than any other young Cardinal athlete this past fall. While redshirting as a true freshman in 2011, he had played the role of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas on the Stanford scout team; just a year later, he took over as the Cardinal’s starter and stunned the No. 2 Ducks at Autzen Stadium to get his team within two games of a Rose Bowl berth, which it would eventually clinch.
Freshman Krista Hardebeck was a better-known commodity in the tennis world than Hogan was in football spheres; she was the top high-school recruit in the country and earned a top-five national ranking by the start of the dual match season. But nobody knew how she would perform in the pressure-cooker of postseason team tennis. All Hardebeck did was bounce back from a 6-7, 1-5 deficit in the decisive match of the national semifinal to keep her team alive for another day, allowing Stanford to capture its first NCAA title of the academic year and to stay in contention for a 19th straight Directors’ Cup.
No freshman, however, put together a season like women’s golf superstar Mariah Stackhouse. Besides breaking the Stanford Golf Course record by shooting a 10-under-par 61 back in February, Stackhouse was the Cardinal’s low scorer at seven of its 11 events, came within four strokes of winning the Pac-12 individual title and paced the team to its best performance at the NCAA Championships (tied for 13th) in sixth years — a finish that could have been even better if it wasn’t for a disastrous final round for Stanford.
So much of the college athletics experience is about the maturation of student-athletes over their four-plus years, which is why we love stories about seniors whose hard work has finally paid off at the tail end of their college careers. But there’s also something uniquely exciting about seeing players who have just walked onto campus dominate. It’s the same feeling we got when we first saw the Lopez twins dunk, Chris Owusu return a kick or Luck throw a pass; the potential for greatness was palpable, and it seemingly came out of nowhere.
Next year may be even more impressive for Hogan, Hardebeck and Stackhouse; they may also fail to live up to our new expectations. But in either case, it will be hard to forget their first forays into the college spotlight: performances that not only defined their respective teams’ seasons, but Stanford athletics’ 2012-13 campaign as well.
Joseph Beyda once heaved a football fifty yards when he was just five years old. Ever since then, he’s been maxing out at five yards. Tell him that it might be time to give up at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.