Stanford women’s soccer hasn’t missed an NCAA tournament since 1998. What’s more: Stanford has made it to six of the last seven College Cups.
With that kind of sustained success, it’s almost hard to believe that the Cardinal only have one national title to show for it, with heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss leaving Stanford, year after year, oh so close — but still just far enough away.
This last College Cup exit might have stung just a little extra.
The 2-0 loss to Florida State marked the end of the Stanford careers of Lo’eau LaBonta, Chioma Ubogagu and Taylor Uhl, the veteran core of the Cardinal attack that accounted for 33 of Stanford’s 56 goals on the season.
But even more significant than the lost scoring production was the energy, personality and senior leadership that all of the departing players brought to the pitch and the clubhouse day after day during their careers on The Farm — a quality much more difficult to replace than scoring production.
“I was concerned at the end of last season that was just going to leave a big hole on the team,” said sophomore Andi Sullivan. “I think a lot of people thought we were going to suffer this huge loss.”
The Stanford youth movement might have something to say about that.
Led by three captains that have a combined five years of collegiate soccer experience among them and six freshmen that comprise the top recruiting class in the nation, the 2015 Cardinal aren’t going to take a step back. In fact, spurred by the incredible raw talent of their newcomers and the painful memories of seeing a shot at the title slip through its fingers last season, Stanford believes that despite its losses it can be the team to beat in the nation.
For what it’s worth, the nation agrees: Stanford was the preseason pick to win the deep, talented Pac-12 and was rewarded with a No. 3 national ranking headed into the season.
“For me, it doesn’t always come down to the age of the players — it comes down to the motivation,” said head coach Paul Ratcliffe. “My hope is that they’re inspired and motivated and they want to prove something because you never know.”
“Last year, we were disappointed to lose in the semifinal. My hope is that the disappointment stays with the team. This year, we have a lot more hunger to prove something, and if we’re able to get back there, then we have have a stronger mentality and win the College Cup again.”
The newcomers have seemingly taken all of that confidence to heart from the get-go, as freshmen Michelle Xiao and Alana Cook have accounted for three of the Cardinal’s six goals so far on the season. Their stellar performances and seamless integration into the Cardinal’s technically-sound scheme have already started to draw great reviews from their teammates and coaches.
Sullivan, who is one of the team’s captains this season as just a sophomore, can’t help but grin from ear to ear as she raves about her new teammates.
“We took the training wheels off so quickly,” she said. “They’re so adjusted — they’re awesome. Day one of training, they’re getting stuck in and making impacts, and they’re all gelling with the team really, really well. It’s been a really easy transition and in games, they’re stepping up huge.”
“When we recruit them, I wish I could get them straight away because they’re so talented, but I have to be patient and wait a couple of years,” Ratcliffe added. “Now that they’re here, they’ve hit the ground running.”
Cook, Xiao and freshman midfielder Jordan DiBiasi have started in both of Stanford’s regular-season matches so far, while classmate Tegan McGrady has also started one game and Averie Collins has appeared as a substitute in both.
Ratcliffe noted that although his starting lineup will remain fluid for the first few weeks of the season as he evaluates his players and determines which personnel groupings work most effectively, as many as four of the freshmen could continue to be starters for the Cardinal.
As a 12-year veteran Stanford head coach, Ratcliffe, of course, understands that there are always going to be growing pains associated with the transition from club leagues into the fast-paced collegiate game for his freshmen. Although his freshmen bring lots of talent to the table and have been adjusting well, he’s admittedly not completely sure as to how effectively the team can disguise its inexperience.
“We’re going to have to learn some hard lessons through the year,” he said. “But hopefully not too many.”
Sullivan echoed the concern but seemed more confident that the youth won’t be a problem.
“It’s just another step up, so you never really know how people are going to adjust, but all of our freshmen are really rising to the occasion and it’s going to be a huge help for the team this year.”
With the freshmen set to bolster an already-talented midfield anchored by Sullivan and fifth-year senior Haley Rosen and a defense that allowed just 14 goals and notched 17 shutouts last year, all the team needs is to put the pieces together to attain excellence.
Although Sullivan and her fellow captains, juniors Maddie Bauer and Jane Campbell, are on the younger side, they took the examples set by last year’s veterans to heart and seem to have found the blueprint to building a successful team.
“[The seniors] left a great legacy and showed us great examples of what to behave like and what to work like and what to believe in,” Sullivan said. “I think their example has helped the rest of the people remaining lead the incoming freshmen and keep a really solid team culture.”
If they can follow that blueprint, the pieces on this year’s team just might be what the Cardinal needed to get over the hump and add another championship trophy to their mantlepiece.
“I honestly think it’s just a drive and an extra bite and that’s something we lacked in the Final Four,” Sullivan said.
“With this group, we may have that last energy to push and just dig a little deeper. We have all the tools we need — it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Difficulty-filled Hawaii trip brings team closer together
When Stanford opened its 2015 regular-season campaign in Hawaii, Ratcliffe and the coaching staff made sure to emphasize that it was going to be “a business trip,” but it was understandably difficult for the team not to get excited about their destination.
After they arrived on Thursday and defeated Hawaii 2-1 in their season opener on Friday, the players had Saturday to wind down and explore Honolulu and O’ahu before regrouping for their scheduled match against a top-20 BYU outfit on Monday.
The Hawaiian islands certainly didn’t seem too keen to say “aloha” to the team, though.
The team headed down to the beach after a team hike of a mountain that overlooked the island, but had a damper put on their beach day by unusually cloudy and rainy weather.
Things only got worse, as the weather made it impossible for Stanford and BYU to play their scheduled game, which ended up being postponed by two weeks.
“We were devastated because we just wanted to play,” Sullivan said. “It’s a long time to spend in a hotel just waiting for a game when you’re there for a couple of days. If we’d only played one we could have technically left way earlier.”
Ratcliffe let his players enjoy a free afternoon in place of the canceled game, and although they made it down to the beach again for another go at the waves, they again had their prospective beach day ruined — this time, by a sewage spill in the ocean that made it impossible to swim.
And as if enough hadn’t already gone wrong on the trip, their long flight home was also delayed due to a maintenance issue.
Despite all of the setbacks, Sullivan still sees the trip as a positive because it allowed the team to deal with some adversity together off the field, bringing them closer together as a squad.
“Even though it wasn’t the most ideal, we still had a good time and it’s kind of a funny trip even though it wasn’t super fun,” Sullivan said. “It’s also good to get those lessons out of the way… We can still handle little ups and downs and not let them shake us. I think that’s another great attribute of the team.”
Despite pressure and expectations, Cardinal keep things light-hearted
Sullivan believes that this year’s clubhouse is a “little more tame” compared to last year’s perpetually bubbly and energetic squad.
That’s not to say that the team doesn’t know how to enjoy a good laugh — particularly at its own expense.
In one of the team’s recent film review sessions — a serious, studious affair — the players watched a replay of forward Mariah Lee beating her defender one-on-one and seemingly breaking open — before tripping over her own feet and falling.
“Everyone just cracked up laughing because the way she fell was funny,” Sullivan said. “We just kept rewinding it and rewinding it and rewinding it and watching it again and again.”
Sullivan believes that being able to mix a little fun into the competitive spirit of the team creates a healthy balance between the grit and determination of play on the field and a positive team dynamic off the field, which has contributed to the great chemistry that this team has developed early on.
“That’s pretty difficult to find as a truly competitive group, where you can grit it out on the field and leave it all out there but it’s not personal off the field. We’re still really close.”
“Mariah’s going to kill me for saying that, but it’s still really funny.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.