Kiki Pickett called game.
The junior right back buried her penalty kick in the back of the net, jumped in celebration and turned to run back to her team to celebrate. Collapsing into two piles, one around Pickett and one around redshirt freshman goalkeeper Katie Meyer, Stanford celebrated its second national championship in three years and third in program history.
After 110 minutes of gritty and scoreless soccer at Avaya Stadium, No. 1 Stanford (23-1-1, 11-0 Pac-12) overthrew 21-time national champion UNC (24-1-2, 9-0-1 ACC) in a rematch of the national championship 10 years prior. Meyer saved two penalty kicks en route to a 5-4 decision after six players from each side stepped up to the spot.
Stanford became the winningest women’s soccer program of the decade with its third national title. All three came under head coach Paul Ratcliffe, who just completed his 17th season on the Farm.
“For me personally, it’s a great feeling to be able to beat them because I have so much respect for what they’ve done, the tradition of winning and the dynasty that they’ve had,” Ratcliffe said.
“We all had butterflies, especially for me knowing that I had to score in order for us to win,” Pickett said. “We’re literally a family so we do it for each other.”
“To be surrounded with these teammates, that’s what lifts me up,” Meyer said. “I’m instrumental because we all are.”
“The thing that kind of brought us through was the character of our group and the sisterhood they have and how much they care about each other,” Ratcliffe said.
Just one penalty kick earlier, the entire script was flipped. The only UNC penalty kick-taker with experience this season, Lotte Wubben-Moy, connected on her shot, leaving freshman left back Kennedy Wesley needing to convert to extend the game. Wesley was up to the challenge and Meyer continued her dominant weekend with a kick save of Tori Hansen, who had not featured in the match, that allowed Pickett to claim the national championship.
“I had a feeling she was going to go left,” Meyer said. “I looked at her and I told myself this ball is mine — this ball has to be mine. Because when you want it that bad and my teammates were calling my name saying I got it, there’s a feeling deep down in you that you can do anything. So I made the save and I knew Kiki was going to make her PK so I had already mentally started celebrating.”
Pickett went left, keeper Claudia Dickey went right and the rest is history.
“I wasn’t going to go anywhere else,” Pickett said. “There was butterflies going all the way through and I had a long walk up because I had to go get that ball. Knowing that Katie saved the PK prior to that I knew she did her job so I had to do mine.”
Meyer had saved the first kick taken by the Tar Heels’ Taylor Otto, but Dickey denied senior forward Carly Malatskey to equalize at 3-3 after four penalty kick takers. Meyer matched her career high of four saves, which she had set the game prior in the 4-1 semifinal win over UCLA.
Meyer, however, had never saved Wesley in practice. The freshman stepped to the spot with poise and delivered on the highest stage. Wesley has yet to score or assist for Stanford, but her penalty kick-taking ability is unquestioned.
“As a freshman, she’s so reliable, and she’s the best person,” Meyer said. “She comes in every single day with a smile on her face and ready to get after it.”
“She’s been huge for us all season, stepping up at that left back position,” said sophomore center back Naomi Girma.
For a team that rode its offense to a program-record 102 goals and opened the postseason with a 15-0 victory, it was the back line that stepped up on Sunday as Stanford was shut out for the second time all season and shut out UNC for the second time in its own season.
The defense was no surprise — Stanford recorded 15 shutouts entering the final, including the entire month of October, and conceded just 12 goals — but the individuals delivered in a remarkable fashion. Three of the six penalty kick-takers came from the four across the back, and all three delivered.
Wesley was repeatedly the focus of the North Carolina attack, but grew into the game and shut down the opposition. Senior center back and captain Sam Hiatt closed down the Tar Heels attack. Girma found herself one-on-one with opponents in dangerous areas and repeatedly came through. And Pickett delivered the championship.
Before her, junior midfielder Catarina Macario, sophomore forward Smith and Girma finished before Malatskey was stonewalled. Nevertheless, the senior in her last game in a Stanford uniform was able to leave with an ecstatic memory.
Malatskey was one of five seniors on the team, alongside Hiatt, forward Sam Tran, midfielder Beattie Goad and keeper Lauren Rood. The group won a pair of national championships and finished with an 85-5-3 record, including a 49-1-2 record at home.
“The seniors have played such an instrumental role for this team,” Pickett said. “They honestly come into practice day in and day out knowing that this could be their last practice, this could be their last game, so they gave it 100%.”
The back-and-forth game commenced with Stanford on the front foot, opening play with four shots in the first seven minutes. As North Carolina shut down Macario and executed a high line of pressure, Stanford was considerably less incisive than it had been throughout the season. The Cardinal took just two more shots in the first half, tested Dickey for a save just twice, but limited the Tar Heels to one shot on goal.
“It was a tough game emotionally as a coach, because it was going back and forward and the momentum was changing from play to play,” Ratcliffe said. “North Carolina had a couple chances, and we had a couple chances.”
“We knew going into this game, especially a College Cup, we knew the main difference would be the mentality of whoever wanted it more would be team that wins,” Girma said. “Going into today, we knew we had to be the team that wanted it more.”
Meanwhile, the second half generally belonged to Stanford, which claimed a 12-5 advantage in shots and forced three more saves out of Dickey, who would go on to set her career high in the category. UNC’s best chance to score a game-winner came with Alessia Russo sliding in at the back post in the 55th minute attempting to get on the end of a ball sent in tantalizingly by Isabel Cox.
It was the first time in 17 games that Stanford allowed double-digit shots, but it took more than 90 minutes for UNC to reach that total. On the other side, UNC’s defense keyed on Macario and junior forward Madison Haley. The 32-goal, 23-assist, likely Hermann trophy winner Macario was held off the scoresheet for just the fifth time all season, including the past two games. Haley’s production of 10 goals and 11 assists was also neutralized.
“We knew that would be the case,” Ratcliffe said. “They’re obviously a very strong team physically and mentally, so they made it hard on Madison Haley, made it hard on our entire squad.”
On their back heel in the first overtime period, the Cardinal allowed three shots in the 10 minutes without finding one of their own. Although each team shot thrice in the second overtime period, after Meyer’s fourth save of the game two minutes in, Stanford got the better of the chances.
Malatskey was tipped just wide on a drive from outside of the area with just over two minutes to play. Soon after, Smith took a crack that glanced off the crossbar. Smith was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament in which she twice recorded hat tricks. The Cardinal also took the final four of their season-high 14 corner kicks in the final 10 minutes.
“Those were the moments that define the national championship game, those special little moments,” Ratcliffe said.”Usually that’s the goal that wins it for you. So when we didn’t score and we go into PKs, obviously, it’s even more challenging.”
Pickett will be one of four Cardinal taking their final exams in Florida due to a call-up to the senior U.S. women’s national team side for a camp that starts Monday. The other three looking to continue the legacy of Cardinal on the USWNT are Girma, Smith and Haley. Kelley O’Hara ’10, Christen Press ’11 and Tierna Davidson ’20 were on the World Cup champion side this summer.
“We definitely have to change our mindset from being here and then going to camp,” Pickett said. “It’s going to be a big opportunity for us in a different environment.”
The 9,591 in attendance included a majority of Stanford fans, many of whom made the 17-mile trek from campus.
“To do that at home just makes it so much better,” San Jose-native Girma said.
“So happy to be able to win here in San Jose, in the Bay Area, in front of our family and friends and all of our fans,” Ratcliffe said.
“The thing I’ll always remember about this championship is the fan support that we got,” Ratcliffe said. “It was unbelievable how many people came out to support the team; it was was fantastic. Stanford really rallied behind us and the whole community.”
Bringing the team over to the corner of the stadium where the Forest, the Stanford student supporters section, was located, was Meyer. After the game, the team celebrated in front of the fans who ventured away from Cagan Stadium to witness a national championship in person.
Even before the penalty kick shootout, Meyer was in the same corner with the student section. After touching the crossbar of one goal, Meyer was waved over to the other side of the field by her teammates to the side where the shootout took place.
“She’s a big personality and a great competitor,” Ratcliffe said. “You have to be because there’s so many nerves, and so much anxiety at that moment. I think she showed her personality coming through huge for us and and winning it.”
Including the penalty kick save of Mia Fishel before halftime against UCLA, Meyer saved three of the seven shots she saw from the spot during the College Cup; she celebrated each of them. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Andrew Thomas of Stanford men’s soccer saved four penalty kicks in one match and six of the past 11 he has seen in the postseason to advance his team to the College Cup.
“Andrew Thomas did the same thing, and he was remarkable,” Ratcliffe said. “I know my team goes and watches all the men’s games, so we learn from him, and he was extraordinary too. You need to have that big personality. You need to be a competitor. And you need to have courage and be brave to win a game like that as a keeper.”