On a wet chilly night at Cagan Field, No. 18 Stanford (0-1, 0-0 Pac-12) dropped its season opener against No. 19 Denver (1-0, 0-0 Big East) 8-7 in a game decided by inches in the very last seconds of play. Trailing 7-1 at the half, the Cardinal mounted a furious comeback that came up just short as senior Areta Buness fired a shot on goal in the waning moments of the game that caught a piece of Denver goalie Carson Gregg and rolled to a stop centimeters in front of the goal-line.
At first draw control, Denver won the ball and a battle for possession ensued. The first ten minutes of play were rather uneventful as both teams struggled to create chances and neither team had a shot on goal, aside from an eight-meter attempt by sophomore Galen Lew saved by Gregg. Soon after Lew’s missed opportunity, the Pioneers opened their scoring account with two goals in two minutes, snatching momentum and exciting their small, but devoted, contingent of fans. Denver put another ball into the net just past the halfway mark of the first 30-minute half, before Stanford responded a couple minutes later with a converted eight-meter by junior Jacie Lemos. The goal ended a 17-minute scoring drought but started another that the Cardinal would not end until the second half.
Upon conversion of their first goal, Stanford fans appeared hopeful that they would settle into a rhythm and pull level or even take a lead by halftime. Instead, the half ended worse than it began as Denver put four more goals past sophomore goalkeeper Trudie Grattan, including a ball skipped through her legs — the classic nutmeg. When the whistle blew for a much-needed intermission, the Cardinal seemed relieved to have the time to regroup and strategize.
Still, down 7-1 and showing little signs of life, Stanford made a gloomy overcast evening appear even more dreadful. The first half unfolded like the initial despair of Tolkien’s Battle of Helm’s Deep — the forces of Saruman, or in this case, of mountain west lacrosse, overwhelmed the Cardinal in Stanford’s own territory and the odds of victory seemed slim. What Stanford then needed coming out of the half was its Gandalf riding over a hill in angelic light with a thousand skilled knights. They would receive their reinforcements in the form of motivation from head coach Amy Bokker.
The second half commenced in ironic circumstances, as it had begun to pour — the game featured a slight drizzle all night — in the middle of the Cardinal’s longest scoring drought. Yet again, the opening ten minutes of this period featured sloppy play from both teams, a highlight reel best watched sped up to double time and backed by Benny Hill’s “Yakety Sax.” Somewhere around five minutes into this circus, Bokker screamed across the field at the refs, who were under heavy scrutiny from both teams throughout the game, entreating them to fix the shot clock and stop allowing Denver to waste precious time. Her words echoed through the stadium reaching the ears of players, refs and fans alike and providing an unorthodox rallying cry for the then-hapless Cardinal: “Am I in the Twilight Zone?”
Stanford now had its Gandalf. With junior captain Daniella McMahon as Legolas and junior Mikaela Watson as Gimli, the Cardinal roared back into the game. Meanwhile, the Denver sideline, especially the coaches, was indistinguishable from the parents section at a Little League baseball game, berating the officials at every turn.
McMahon started the comeback scoring on a triple team, ripping it past three defenders and the goalie. Watson followed less than a minute later with a quick turnaround, slinging the ball past Gregg and giving fans hope for a competitive game.
After some more bickering between coaches and officials, Watson assisted Buness for another goal with ten minutes to go in the game, pulling the game within three scores, 7-4. Five minutes later, as hope began to diminish as Stanford fought the clock, McMahon lasered a ball from eight meters out past the helpless Gregg and the tie seemed within reach. However, on the next couple possessions, the Cardinal caught some tough breaks with multiple balls bouncing off the post and Denver using all its possession time to milk the clock. By the time there were two minutes left, Denver had the ball and Stanford needed to go for a steal to have any chance at making the comeback. This strategy left a Denver player wide open for a one-on-one with Grattan which she converted to effectively quell the Cardinal charge, 8-5.
Stanford was unwilling to capitulate, winning the next two face-offs and scoring on a frozen rope fire by Watson from outside the eight-meter circle and another close-range shot from sophomore Ali Baiocco, assisted by Watson. The second goal occurred with 27 seconds left in the game and it then became imperative that the Cardinal win possession on the following draw control. After what seemed like an eternity of preparation by the refs, the Cardinal did just that and had the ball in their half with seconds left to play. The ball made its way around to Buness who got a shot off on goal which deflected off the keeper Gregg and trickled right up to the goal-line but apparently stopped short.
Denver ran onto the field to celebrate while Stanford players and coaches alike protested the call. It was a messy way for the game to end and all the more disappointing, considering the tireless effort of the Cardinal to get back in the game. Stanford had outscored Denver 6-1 in the second half, with a 17-8 advantage in shots and 6-2 lead in draw controls. Nonetheless, all Stanford’s fight and hustle in the second half wasn’t enough to surmount a disappointing first half showing, and its “Twilight Zone Comeback” — as it would have been quickly dubbed — fell short.
Stanford now looks to bounce back from a tough initial defeat with two weeks of preparation before its next game against Fresno State at Cagan Field. The Cardinal will undoubtedly look to focus on first half performance and come out firing against their next few opponents.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.