The stakes are raised tonight for the No. 3 Stanford women’s soccer team, as head coach Paul Ratcliffe’s squad hosts a first-round match in the NCAA tournament. A cracking run of form during the regular season saw the Cardinal (17-1-2) finish second in the Pac-12 table to top-ranked UCLA, yet still impress the selection committee enough to earn the number one overall seed in the tournament. And along with the top ranking comes home field advantage in round one.
A surging Cal State Fullerton (10-7-4) side will serve as opponents in the opening Round of 64. Unbeaten since September 28th, the Titans most recently captured the Big West Tournament trophy in a close match over Long Beach State.
CSU Fullerton head coach Demian Brown will be looking to junior striker Rebecca Wilson to provide the goods for his squad. Wilson leads all Titans with 10 goals on the year, but can also serve as a playmaker. The Placentia, California product supplied the assist on both goals in the Big West Final.
Stanford enters the match on a similar run of form having won seven on the trot, with its last loss being a 2-1 nail biter in Westwood against UCLA.
The Card’s last outing was another tricky road fixture across the Bay in Berkeley, with Stanford able to tame the then-No. 22 Golden Bears. Senior midfielder Alex Doll, senior forward Taylor Uhl and senior midfielder Lo’eau Labonta scored three unanswered goals for the Cardinal, serving to negate an early defensive blunder that put Cal up one-nil early.
This match is a direct reprise of last year’s NCAA tournament, where Stanford also drew the Titans at home in the first round. In that contest, a 14th minute goal from Uhl proved to be the only difference between the two teams, as the Card advanced with a 1-0 score line.
The home side may well be looking for a more convincing performance than that of a year ago, however. As a number one seed with the nation’s eyes fixed upon them, a convincing win could do wonders for the squad’s confidence.
In a pre-match interview, Ratcliffe was hesitant to underestimate the Titans, and expects a tough battle.
“Fullerton is going to be a strong opponent,” he said. “They won their tournament to get in [the NCAA tournament], and will be playing like it is their last game of the year.”
Come the first whistle, Ratcliffe hopes his side can “match [the Titan’s] intensity,” so as not to start the match on the back foot. Knockout competition is such that an early mistake can prove costly, as teams are then content to sit back in defense and protect their lead.
“I know from the past in the playoffs, every game is tight, and you just have to win and get by,” Ratcliffe said.
For this match and throughout the early rounds, Stanford will certainly be the superior outfit on paper. Labonta has been firing on all cylinders during the second half of the season and leads the Cardinal with 11 goals. Along with senior forward Chioma Ubogagu and sophomore forward Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, she forms one of the most deadly attacking threats in the nation, which may simply prove too much for the visiting southern California club.
Added to this is the impervious Cardinal defense, which started the season on a nine-match shutout run. Marshaled by U.S. national team keeper Jane Campbell, the Cardinal back four should keep CSU Fullerton’s chances at a premium.
Ratcliffe was coy as to his tactics for the match, but let slip that he will not change much.
“Our tactics remain pretty similar to what we’ve done through the year,” he said. “I just think that the intensity is higher in every game now because it is your last game if you don’t advance.”
The Cardinal looks to be favorites to advance barring a gross misstep or a Herculean effort from the Titans. The winner will then go on to face the victor from tonight’s Oklahoma/Arkansas match on Nov. 21.
Contact Will Drinkwater at willydri ‘at’ stanford.edu.