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Furious comeback averts first-round tournament disaster

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For 45 minutes, it looked like the No. 1 Stanford women’s soccer team might meekly take a bow out of the NCAA tournament in just its first game against Cal State Fullerton on Friday night at Cagan Stadium.

Instead, it did something that it had not needed to do all season: It confronted the real possibility of catastrophe straight in the face and didn’t flinch.

It took just under eight-and-a-half minutes for Stanford to go down 1-0 on a penalty kick sent straight down the middle by Fullerton senior forward Brianna Chapman after Fullerton drew a penalty on senior midfielder Alex Doll. The Cardinal suddenly found themselves down 2-0 at the very end of the 29th minute, when an errant pass from the back was snatched up by Fullerton junior forward Christin Burkenroad, sprinted down the right side, cut back against the pursuing defenders and launched into the top right corner.

It was not a lack of energy that put the Cardinal down by two with an hour left to play. Stanford outshot Fullerton 13-5 in the first half and was fairly dominant in possession. However, the Cardinal always looked a bit tentative in their first game of the tournament and appeared to be waiting for something to happen. They seemed especially cautious in the attacking third, where Stanford’s attack lacked decisiveness and a quality final pass. Though significant credit must be given to Titans goalkeeper Jennifer Stuart for the first-half shutout, she made a number of fantastic saves throughout the game as a whole, and was an integral part of the pressure put on Stanford early.

“When the second one went in, it was like, ‘Uh oh,'” said senior forward Chioma Ubogagu.

“Uh oh” was probably not among the phrases used by head coach Paul Ratcliffe as the Cardinal went into the locker room trailing by two and with plenty of reason besides physical exertion to make them sweat. It was the first time since 2009 that the Cardinal faced a 2-0 deficit and the team could very easily have folded under the pressure.

But Ratcliffe couldn’t have been more spot-on in his analysis when he said, “All we needed was one goal and we’d be back in it…We needed to play with passion but it had to be within our game. We needed to play good possession soccer.”

One goal was all it required to spark Stanford’s offense in one of the most dominant second halves of the entire year in which it held the Titans to zero shots while pouring on 20 of its own.

It all began on a set play after senior midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta earned a penalty on the very edge of the right side of the box in the 61st minute. LaBonta and Ubogagu lined up over the ball to take the kick. LaBonta charged forward and, with her reputation preceding her, got Titan goalkeeper Stuart to flinch to the left. Then Ubogagu, perhaps playing the game of her collegiate career, curled the ball perfectly up over the wall and under the right side of the bar.

The Cardinal had spent the first half looking for someone to step forward and that person was undoubtedly Ubogagu, who proved once again that there are very few Division I players with her level of skill on the ball. She netted the equalizer just five minutes later in the 66th with a laser off her boot at the end of a spectacular run in which she beat three Titans defenders. For Ubogagu, it was a truly special night. She scored a tantalizing header as LaBonta’s cross found her unmarked in the very center of the box and she again curled the ball over the goalkeeper and under the crossbar in the 88th minute for a hat trick and to cap off the furious Stanford rally.

“I really believe in the team and everyone on the field, in everyone’s fight and competitiveness,” Ubogagu said. “I’m just really proud that we showed great character. Get the first one and keep fighting, and keep trying to get the result.”

As Ubogagu also pointed out, it was hardly a one-woman effort, the entire team stepped up to play with the killer instincts that it had lacked in the first half and shut out Fullerton offensively. The senior leadership on the team showed as well, with Doll, LaBonta and senior forward Taylor Uhl playing pivotal roles in the comeback victory. Doll was especially impressive, redeeming herself after she could easily have let a few of the first-half letdowns get to her. She had an assist in each of Uhl’s two goals, first heading the ball back across goal to LaBonta who sent it in the air to Uhl, who hammered home a volley, and then stealing the ball from a Fullerton defender and sliding it to Uhl once again.

It would have been easy for a team with less character to take an ignominious duck out of the tournament. All the pressure was on this Stanford squad, with a monumental upset in the brewing and a situation that it hadn’t faced all season long. It responded in the best possible manner, walked through the fire unscathed and got the chance to show everyone its true character. The Cardinal can move forward knowing that they are not just a fantastically talented team, but they are full of the kind of grit and resiliency that the tournament demands.

Contact Nicholas Radoff at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Nic Radoff '15 is now officially from Oakland and is a proud to be a history major and a Latin-American studies minor. Nic was a staff writer for women's soccer and follows football extensively, whether his editors let him write about it or not. He is a proud member of the men's club lacrosse team and invites you all to come watch most Saturdays, even though you might not see him on the field much. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking with his husky Artoo, lamenting his A's and maintaining that things get better with age.