KENNESAW, Ga. -- Leave it to a group of seniors from Stanford to ace their last chance at a final exam.
Stanford seniors Camille Levin, Teresa Noyola, Lindsay Taylor and Kristy Zurmuhlen took the field together for the final time Sunday against Duke. They left the field with the Cardinal crowned national champions for the first time.
That Levin and Noyola teamed up for the only goal in their team's 1-0 win certainly wasn't the only way it could have ended. But after four seasons and three bitter disappointments, it was the way it should have ended for a team that is just the fourth undefeated champion in the past 15 years. Its senior class departs with a 95-4-4 career record.
"They've been great leaders this year," Stanford sophomore keeper Emily Oliver said. "I think they're one of the key reasons why we are so cohesive. It's just been a special year with them. To leave the legacy they've left, I mean, they've given so much to this program. To win it for them was so meaningful -- to give something back to them. They've provided so much for our program, and we've kind of become a powerhouse on their reign."
Zurmuhlen wondered just what she had gotten herself into the first time she arrived on campus as a freshman. Coming from a small town in New Hampshire with fewer than a thousand residents, she marveled with equal parts wonderment and apprehension at the scale of her new surroundings. Driving around the main campus loop that first day in the summer of 2008, she told her mom she wasn't sure she could find her way in the labyrinth.
"Don't worry, you have a map. I'll get you another map," Zurmuhlen recalled of the typically maternal response.
A little more than three calendar years and four soccer seasons later, every nook and cranny of campus is now familiar. Zurmuhlen couldn't help but laugh at the memory of her younger self stressing so much. Sure, campus looks big compared to the cow pastures around Walpole, N.H., but it quickly becomes the place you know best of all.
Just as the Cardinal seem to know all the shortcuts on the field, as if working off a map all their own.
Just as the scale of the College Cup shrinks to a more manageable level after four visits.
Stanford had the edge in play for much of the first half against Duke, but it couldn't find the back of the net against a resilient defense that was aided by a terrific save from keeper Tara Campbell on a hard shot from Noyola. When halftime came, the Cardinal streak of consecutive scoreless minutes in championship games had reached 225. Levin said thoughts of 1-0 losses the past two seasons against North Carolina and Notre Dame, respectively, never entered their minds during the break. If that's the case, they were the only ones in the stadium not wondering if history was about to repeat itself in the cruelest manner.
Seven minutes into the second half came the play four years in the making. After the ball had worked its way through five or six Stanford players with a series of quick passes, Levin took a slip pass from Chioma Ubogagu on the right side in Duke's half and carried the ball toward the end line. She caught sight of Noyola making a run toward the far post and tried to deliver a cross, only to have it blocked by one of two Blue Devils defenders lunging at her. The ball squirted forward, and Levin, beating the prone defenders to their feet, tried again, hoping Noyola was still there.
The two protagonists first played together on a regional team when they weren't yet old enough to drive, let alone think of college championships. So maybe Levin didn't see her on that second cross, but she knew she would be there all the same.
"From the first time I played with her, I was like, 'I want to play with this girl as long as I possibly can,'" Noyola recalled of their time together at 14 or 15 years old. "It's just fitting that we would combine for the winning goal."
But even if there's only time on the highlight reel to see Levin's cross arc high above the goal before Noyola's head redirects it forcefully inside the near post, that's not the full story of how the goal came to be.
Taylor was charged with filling the void left by Hermann Trophy winner Christen Press, who in turn replaced Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O'Hara as Stanford's leading scorer. Taylor totaled 20 goals this season. The comparisons to two of the most prolific scorers in recent college soccer history made for an impossible standard, especially for someone who battled injuries the past two seasons, but Taylor never wavered.
"Lindsay is one of the best finishers I've ever played with or against," Levin said. "She just has a nose for the goal. My confidence in her any time I get the ball into the box area is just so high. I've been so lucky to get to play with her these past four years."
Yet it wasn't the finishing Taylor provided Sunday. Rewind the tape a bit from the heroics provided by Noyola and Levin and you see it's Taylor who delivered the perfect pass across the field to Ubogagu that allowed Levin to get the ball in the first place. Stanford's system is defined by every player doing her part, whether it's a striker providing the pass midfield or the outside back serving the assist from the edge of the 18-yard box.
And if this Stanford team was a little more confident that something good would happen, a little less stressed by the surroundings, it might have had something to do with the other senior, the one digging balls out of the corner, breaking up Duke possessions and smiling every moment there wasn't a game going on.
"I didn't expect her to get to where she got to; I don't think anybody did," Noyola said of Zurmuhlen's rise to the starting lineup. "I can't say enough about her -- I mean, she had really, really tough freshman and sophomore years, seeing almost no playing time. … It's just a testament to what kind of person she is, always so disciplined, so hard-working, so positive, and it really rubs off out there. Her energy was crucial for us throughout the whole season."
The game was far from over after the goal. Perhaps knocked off-kilter by their surroundings or tactical tweaks early in the game, the Blue Devils found their focus. Time and again they came at Stanford in the closing 20 minutes, forcing Oliver to make the save of the game on a shot by Kaitlyn Kerr. They turned the game into something resembling a hockey power play at points.
"The longest 20 minutes of my life," Oliver joked.
But after three years of exiting on the wrong end of 1-0 scores, it was only fitting Stanford won it all by the same margin.
With no senior starters and stats littered throughout the freshmen and sophomore classes, Duke's future is as bright as any defeated College Cup team since Stanford with its cast of underclassmen in 2008.
Stanford isn't going away in the future, either. Head coach Paul Ratcliffe has created a Pac-12 mini-dynasty by plugging in new parts and moving forward. And with players like Oliver, the tournament's defensive Most Outstanding Player, Ubogagu and Rachel Quon returning and a new round of talented freshmen arriving next fall, Stanford will be a favorite to reach next year's College Cup in San Diego.
But Levin, Noyola, Taylor and Zermuhlen weren't going to get another chance. They came to Stanford at a time when Portland and UCLA were the powers on the West Coast; the team from Palo Alto a distant third at best.
They leave as one of the most successful classes in history, with the final piece needed for that label.
"Did I imagine we would win a national championship? Absolutely not," Noyola said of her decision to attend Stanford. "It wasn't like a North Carolina, where if you go you're almost guaranteed to win a national championship.
"It's a great story of how we kind of built it up."
They graduate with honors.