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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
North Carolina feeling pressure facing Stanford

By Graham Hays

SAN DIEGO -- There are two things no College Cup should be without in an effort to provide maximum entertainment.

Late November temperatures in San Diego, and North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance.

Actually, with a moderate chance of rain in the forecast for Friday and throughout the weekend, the famously glorious weather here may yet disappoint. Making his return to college soccer's final weekend, Dorrance did not.

No coach has been to the College Cup more often than Dorrance, the architect of 20 NCAA championships and 26 semifinal appearances in 31 tries during the sport's NCAA era. But it turns out the history of the women's game nearly unfolded in a distinctly different fashion, and in spinning a yarn during Thursday's news conference about how close he came to taking over the Stanford program in the early 1990s, North Carolina's coach demonstrated why this weekend is more entertaining with him there.

"I tell you it was so tempting," Dorrance said. "The housing allowance they gave me was enormous. I was going to live in this palatial mansion right next to Palo Alto. Recruiting there would have been like shooting fish in a barrel. I could have golfed all day and made two recruiting calls and finished my recruiting within five minutes. And it would have been an absolute joy to recruit there. ... And my mother, who is a native North Carolinian, called me up while I was on this visit, and she said 'If you go to Stanford, I'm putting my head in an oven.' And that took care of that."

As much as any Cup in the past few seasons, in part because few recent tournaments have hewed as closely to seeding, this weekend features four teams with essentially identical chances of winning a championship. Florida State, Penn State and Stanford advanced as No. 1 seeds. North Carolina, a No. 2 seed, earned its ticket by traveling to arguably the toughest road venue in the nation and beating No. 1 BYU in overtime. There is no pairing of teams in the final that could qualify as a surprise, no champion that could beat the odds. That said, there is no mistaking the particular allure of Friday's second semifinal between Stanford and North Carolina (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET).

Top programs meet

Dorrance warned of the perils of pursuing profundity in making this game a referendum on history, instead of a game between two soccer teams, but, well, tough luck.

Over the past five seasons, each of which ended in the College Cup and last season with a championship trophy, Stanford has done what few programs other than North Carolina could. The Cardinal's current senior class takes the field Friday with a career record of 94-3-4, including a 40-0-0 mark in the Pac-12, likely the second-toughest conference in the country behind the ACC. And that still isn't good enough for those seniors to own the school record. To match the 95 career wins earned by last year's seniors, this group still needs to win another game. Wouldn't you know it, that game comes against a North Carolina program that Stanford has never defeated.

"I think it's very difficult to replicate what Carolina's done," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said of the titles. "That's remarkable, and now with so much parity, I think it's even more difficult to do. I don't think that will be ever repeated."

That this Stanford team is poised to enhance its own legacy at the expense of North Carolina may already reveal as much about the program's power as anything accomplished the past four seasons. This was supposed to be the season Stanford finally took a step backward, having graduated Hermann Trophy winners (Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press and Teresa Noyola) after each of the past three seasons. Injuries also deprived the Cardinal of starting goalkeeper Emily Oliver early in the season, while the Under-20 Women's World Cup took offensive standout Chioma Ubogagu out of the mix for a month.

When it took the field for the first time this season, Stanford started just three players who played similar roles in the national championship game nine months earlier. Oliver and Ubogagu eventually returned, but new players and players in new roles carried the day. Freshman Laura Liedle emerged as another anchor on a back line with two four-year starters in Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon. A defender in 2010 and injured all of 2011, Courntey Verloo led the team with 10 goals and 11 assists as a forward. Gradually, they saw how the pieces fit together.

"To be honest, I don't think we knew for a little while," said Mariah Nogueira, one of the few returning starters. "There are a lot of players on our team that could fit multiple positions that were kind of up in the air in the beginning. It was just experience and seeing what the right combination would be, and when we did find that combination, it's proved to be successful. Honestly, [the roles] could change this weekend, that's just how talented our team is this year."

That depth furthers cements the reality that Stanford has supplanted traditional powers Santa Clara and Portland as the hub of women's soccer on the West Coast, and perhaps the nation.

"We go head to head with Stanford all the time in recruiting; we rarely beat them," Dorrance said. "Head to head, they win almost every recruit that we go after. This field ... of Stanford players on Friday is littered with my recruiting failures. But so is almost every Stanford team I've ever recruited against, so I know the challenge that we have."

Not that any of his peers will offer Dorrance much sympathy. His roster remains loaded with some of the sport's best young talent. The level of talent, in fact, may have hurt the team this season, when key starters Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai, along with talented freshman keeper Bryane Heaberlin, missed time for the U-20 World Cup and freshman standout Summer Green missed time for the Under-17 World Cup. It's a familiar theme, but once all their pieces had time together, and a back line decimated by injuries gelled in front of goalkeeper Adelaide Gay hit its stride, the Tar Heels looked the part of championship contender.

Even if Dorrance, back on the biggest stage, couldn't resist one final chance to play the underdog card in a College Cup that doesn't have any.

"Rodin sculpture garden in the middle of campus?" Dorrance asked rhetorically about Stanford. "Are you freaking kidding me? There's got to be rules against the advantages schools like Stanford have. In fact, I think all of us that play them should all go into a game a goal up because of the advantage they have, just to sort of level the playing field.

"So for all of you guys in the NCAA that are sitting out there, consider that as an option."

Penn State-Florida State no slouch

Friday's first semifinal doesn't lack for history, with Florida State and Penn State splitting 10 College Cup appearances between them (six for the Seminoles and four for the Nittany Lions), but its intrigue is rooted in the present.

Both teams began the season as the best in the nation on one side of the ball, but with significant questions on the other side. Both got to San Diego because those potential weaknesses became strengths in the postseason.

For much of the season, the Seminoles owned the stingiest defense in the nation, a group that put together 17 shutouts in 23 games entering this weekend. With a stalwart keeper in Kelsey Wys, size in central defenders Kristin Grubka and U-20 international Kassey Kallman and versatility from fullbacks Ines Jaurena and Casey Short, it's a complete group. And yet none of the four teams in San Diego scored more goals through the first four rounds than the Seminoles, a departure from the goal drought that followed them much of the season. Even with that defense, Florida State won a lot of one-goal games -- nine 1-0 victories in the regular season. Redshirt senior Tiffany McCarty, the school's all-time leading goal scorer even before her final season, did her part with nine goals in 18 games, but she took control with six goals in the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament.

"Sometimes as a striker, you kind of have droughts," McCarty said when asked if the surge was an indication of her peaking or the ball bouncing the right way. "And then there's times when the ball just happens to go in."

The problem for Penn State when the season began was whether a potentially great offense could score enough goals.

The Nittany Lions lost two defenders to injury before the first regular-season game, forcing coach Erica Walsh to replace a four-defender formation with a 3-5-2, one seen far less frequently in the college game and one that puts those three defenders under considerable pressure. That it was anchored by sophomore Whitney Church, who spent most of her freshman season playing midfield, only underscored the challenge.

"What we figured out pretty quickly is that if we score goals, A, we're going to have a lot of fun and B, we're going to win a lot of games," Walsh said. "And we'll figure out the defense as it comes. Kind of the opposite philosophy of what I'm used to employing."

To say the defense struggled is to overstate things; a lot of teams would be content with allowing 20 goals in 21 regular-season games, especially with an offense that led the nation in goals. But when the attacking array of Christine Nairn (16 goals, 11 assists), Maya Hayes (15 goals, 6 assists in 18 games), Mallory Weber (13 goals), Raquel Rodriguez (4 goals, 10 assists) and Emily Hurd (2 goals, 8 assists) hit strong headwinds in the postseason, the defense held up its end of the bargain, securing a 1-1 draw against Michigan in the third round en route to a penalty-shootout advancement and a 1-0 win against Duke's robust offense in the quarterfinals.

Along the way, Church won honors as Big Ten defender of the year.

"It's evolved from a collection of great defenders to a unit," Walsh said. "That's where you want to be at this point in the season. They can look to their left and look to their right, and they know the players around them, they know their strengths and weaknesses. We all have them, whether it's individually or collectively as a team, and the trick is to minimize to those weaknesses."

There will be a lot of talent and a lot of history on display in Friday night's games. Weaknesses, on the other hand, will be in short supply.