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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Top-seeded Stanford on quest for soccer title

By Michelle Smith

STANFORD, Calif. -- Most of the players on the Stanford women's soccer team gathered Monday afternoon in Kissick Auditorium for the live streaming of the NCAA women's soccer tournament selection show.

The small auditorium, located in the athletic department complex, regularly hosts both Stanford news conferences and football position group meetings. On this day, it was the stage for the Cardinal's next trip to the postseason.

As the brackets were revealed on the NCAA's web broadcast -- showing the Cardinal to be the 64-team tournament's No. 1 seed and declaring them the favorite, with perennial powers such as North Carolina, Notre Dame and Portland facing relative struggles -- the players watched quietly, with occasional laughter and a subdued cheer or two.

There was no high-fiving, wild cheering or anything to indicate the Stanford players had expected anything less than what they got. They'll start with a first-round matchup against Montana (6-11-4) on Friday night on their home field.

It was unmistakably all business. As it should have been.

Lindsay Taylor
Lindsay Taylor led the Pac-12 with 17 goals this season.

Stanford, the top-ranked team in the nation, is 19-0-1, having reeled off its third consecutive undefeated regular season. The Cardinal are the top seed in the tournament for the third straight year. This is a team that does not lack for wins -- it enters the NCAA tournament unbeaten in 62 straight regular-season matches -- consistency, talent or leadership.

What it lacks is a national championship, having suffered 1-0 losses in back-to-back NCAA title games the previous two years.

So finishing with a trophy is the goal here, with the emphasis on finishing -- particularly for the four seniors who were honored Saturday night on their home field as perhaps the winningest class in the history of college women's soccer.

Camille Levin, Teresa Noyola, Lindsay Taylor and Kristy Zurmuhlen are the first group of seniors to finish with one regular-season loss (75-1-4) during their career since North Carolina's class of 1995, led by Tisha Venturini.

The Cardinal are the third team in history to put together three straight undefeated regular seasons and have more wins over four seasons than any other program. The four seniors are the foundation of a team that knows how to win, but not yet how to win it all.

"This team has a hunger and desire to win, and it's our last chance to win a championship," said Taylor, the Pac-12's leader with 17 goals and the player whom Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe called the best finisher in the country. "We've had a mentality the whole year where we are not looking at the whole picture, we haven't looked forward at all, just at what's in front of us."

Noyola, the team's center midfielder, is a two-time All-American. She said the Cardinal want to get started on their title chase right away.

"We don't like waiting; we want to play our first game right now," Noyola said. "But we also understand that we can't get ahead of ourselves."

Teresa Noyola
Teresa Noyola, the team's center midfielder, is a two-time All-American.

Noyola said she has appreciated the journey that brought her team back to this place, as national title contenders, and cherished the receptions she and her classmates got from the crowd and their fellow teammates at senior night last weekend.

"I appreciate that we've been able to make an impact here, that I've had little moments with my teammates," Noyola said. "I'm not going to get that many of them, and our role, as seniors, is to make sure that everybody understands that.

"It's really about making the most of this opportunity in this moment."

Zurmuhlen has made the most of hers. She became a starter for the first time in her career as a senior. Two years ago, she played in just two games, but she's closing her career as a mainstay in the midfield.

"Our main goal is to get back to the Final Four," Zurmuhlen said. "I definitely tried to take the time at [senior night] to take it all in, but I quickly shifted back to the fact that we are not done yet. We don't want to be done for a while."

Levin said the expectations have been high for Stanford all season, particularly the expectations that the players have of themselves.

"I think every single person, from the players to the coaches and the staff, have been dedicated to working hard, and that creates an atmosphere here," Levin said. "Every game we've played this season, it's a huge game for the opponent. We don't take anything for granted, and we've been able to come out and play with the same intensity."

The four seniors share an apartment, cementing their bond. Noyola said plenty of conversations have taken place across the hallway.

"We always want to get each other's perspective on things," she said. "As a class, we are very different personality-wise, but we complement each other well. We've learned a lot from each other."

Ratcliffe said the seniors' leadership and their obvious friendship have contributed to his team's strong chemistry.

"They all want to stay together as long as possible," Ratcliffe said. "We have experience, and if there's any justice, if there is such a thing, we will have an opportunity to play for a title for these incredible seniors."

Noyola is realistic about her team's chances to win it all.

"I know we are capable of it," she said. "I believe in this team. I believe this team can do it. Soccer is a crazy game, and we know that it might not happen. Soccer is like that. But we are so talented, and we have the drive and the team chemistry.

"I would definitely be disappointed if it didn't happen."