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KENNESAW, Ga. -- What a team does best game after game determines whether it gets a shot at a championship. What individuals do with the shots they get in the College Cup often determines whether those teams win one.
Stanford entered the College Cup as the favorite and No. 1 overall seed because it was the nation's most complete team over the three-month grind of the regular season. The Cardinal will play for a national championship Sunday after beating Florida State 3-0 because of moments of individual brilliance against an opponent that couldn't provide the same punctuation on its play.
Duke outlasted the competition in the nation's toughest conference and earned a No. 1 seed with a defense that might yet go down as the stingiest in program history. Yet the Blue Devils will face the Cardinal because they wasted next to nothing on the offensive end in a 4-1 semifinal win against Wake Forest, scoring in just about every manner possible in a game that was, again, closer than the score indicated.
Stanford looked ready to play the familiar part of Barcelona against Florida State. Off the opening whistle, the Cardinal calmly knocked the ball around with six passes, probing and prodding but never punching blindly. However, instead of proceeding to another clinical dissection, they soon found themselves in a fight against a team with equal athleticism and skill. The Seminoles forced Stanford keeper Emily Oliver to wade into traffic; forced defender Camille Levin to throw her body in front of crosses, shots and the considerably larger frame of Icelandic midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir; and generally forced Stanford to its back foot.
As Florida State lined up for a corner kick in the 21st minute, it felt like a goal was imminent. Sure enough, one was.
Stanford's Mariah Nogueira headed the corner away from goal and toward freshman Chioma Ubogagu, who was off and running with nothing but green grass and a single defender between her and the distant goal. After working a give-and-go with Teresa Noyola, she froze the lone defender in her path and put the ball between the keeper's legs -- a target she purposely picked out.
Barely two minutes later, the ball again residing in the Cardinal's end after Florida State pushed forward, Stanford's Lindsay Taylor played a long ball to Ubogagu down the left side. The freshman won the race to the ball, gained the end line and picked out Kristy Zurmuhlen cutting across the 18-yard box at the near post. The pass placed perfectly in her path, Zurmuhlen beat the keeper, and Stanford had a two-goal lead with just 24 minutes off the clock.
Florida State had a clear edge in the run of play. Stanford had a clear edge on the scoreboard.
"You know that you're only going to get so many good chances against a good team, and you need to capitalize on those opportunities," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said. "I did think we had a couple of pretty good looks, and either we struck the ball at the goalkeeper or we missed. That's the way this game goes. If you don't put the ball in the net, you can be punished for it."
This was what the Cardinal so often struggled to do the previous three seasons in the College Cup, playing Notre Dame and North Carolina to a standstill for 88 or 89 of a game's 90 minutes. They had individual brilliance in abundance with Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press, but even in past semifinal wins, every goal seemed an ordeal. Ubogagu's goal was the first Stanford had scored in the first half of any of its six games in the College Cup since 2008. The early two-goal lead provided by her assist represented a margin Stanford had held for all of three minutes and change in those five prior games.
That the big plays came from a freshman only seemed right in a stadium that didn't exist when Stanford made the first of its four consecutive semifinal appearances. Ubogagu knew her history -- she was in the stadium the past two years watching her future teammates fall in the title game -- and made sure the Cardinal weren't doomed to repeat it.
"There's no doubt I've been blessed to have some great freshmen, and Chi is way up there," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said of Ubogagu, who is second on the Cardinal with 10 goals. "She is really a special player. She has a level of maturity about her and composure. And she is a big-time player; it seems like in the big games she steps forward. Pac-12, usually one of the biggest games is UCLA, and she was absolutely phenomenal against UCLA. And tonight you saw it again. The first two goals, she scored one and created the other one and, I thought, had a great game."
The composure is almost more impressive than the talent. The goal was spectacular, the assist phenomenal, but watching Ubogagu reach out a foot in traffic and settle a long pass with a touch that wouldn't break an egg is mesmerizing. She is simply unflappable, whether playing in front of more than 9,000 fans at Kennesaw Soccer Stadium or talking about it after as if it was just another game.
"Big stage, yes," Ubogagu allowed. "It was my first College Cup, obviously because I'm a freshman. But this team has been really focused all year. We wanted to get here, so I just felt really comfortable. I wasn't really nervous going into the game."
A corner kick provided the turning point in the second game, albeit in more conventional fashion. After staving off seven corners by Wake Forest in the opening 42 minutes, Duke took the lead when a corner kick of its own fell to the feet of redshirt sophomore substitute Kim DeCesare. When DeCesare's shot beat keeper Aubrey Bledsoe low, Duke had just its fourth goal off a corner kick in 26 games this season.
That was only the start. After Duke's star trio of Kelly Cobb, Laura Weinberg and Mollie Pathman combined for a sensational goal that saw Pathman volley a cross from Weinberg into the back of the net, the former added a second goal on a penalty kick. Kaitlyn Kerr closed the scoring off another corner kick, making it four goals for a team that scored a grand total of two in advancing to regional semifinals last season.
After hitting an offensive wall this season in a slump that culminated in an ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest, Duke spent the extra practice time afforded by that defeat working on the shape and width of its attack. More important than any tactics to work on, though, is that more than ever before, the Blue Devils have talent to work with, as Pathman proved Friday.
"The old saying is big-time players play big-time games, and that's what Mollie Pathman is," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "What a world-class service she has with that left foot. … I would hate to be a defender and have Mollie running at me because you're really not sure what she's going to do."
At its most basic level, the College Cup is an entirely predictable event. With teams so often evenly matched, the games come down to a team capitalizing on a moment when one falls at its feet.
The magic is in watching to see who will rise to the occasion. Stanford and Duke are here because they're complete from keeper to striker and the bench beyond.
They play Sunday because Chioma Ubogagu and Mollie Pathman made sure of it.