If there were any lingering doubts that the Stanford women's soccer team should be ranked first in the nation, they were erased when the Cardinal handed visiting No. 3 UCLA a 2-0 loss Sunday in as important a Pac-10 match played this season.
Stanford (4-0, 15-0) ended six frustrating years in which it could not even score against the Bruins while managing a 0-4-2 mark over that stretch. The Cardinal last beat UCLA (3-1, 12-2-1) on Oct. 13, 2002, 1-0, also at Stanford.
"We wanted to get it done at least once," Stanford senior forward Kelley O'Hara said. "They're all great players and it's definitely a rivalry. To get a solid 2-0 win over these guys, in this atmosphere, has to improve our confidence and gives us added experience in playoff-type games."
More importantly, Stanford takes the inside track toward its first conference title in seven years. The Bruins, familiar visitors to the Women's College Cup (Final Four), are six-time defending Pac-10 champs.
The setback ended UCLA's 12-match overall winning streak and 22-match conference winning streak.
"I'd be lying if I said this was not a big game, especially for the seniors," Cardinal senior defender Ali Riley said. "We wanted to beat them and we finally pulled through. I think we also proved something today because UCLA has great players who never quit."
From the Bruins' perspective, they have to think they were just plain unlucky. They had at least two balls hit off the crossbar and came close on several other occasions. Stanford's first score was an own goal at the 71:01 mark. A Bruins' defender blocked Christen Press' shot from five yards out but misdirected it past the UCLA goalie.
UCLA created more, and better, scoring opportunities than any team the Cardinal has faced this season. The Bruins took 10 of their 14 shots in the second half, when Stanford goalie Kira Maker made four of her five saves.
Stanford had a few near misses of its own; none more spectacular than O'Hara's attempted diving header and, minutes later, a high-flying bicycle kick that just missed.
"The defense has been getting better and better every game," O'Hara said. "A shutout against UCLA? That's a great accomplishment."
Freshmen Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon have filled valuable roles in the backfield while Riley and senior Alicia Jenkins have provided steady leadership.
"Alina and Quon play like they've been doing it forever," O'Hara said. "Alina is like the silent winner. I look at her and think, 'you are not a senior.' And Mariah (Nogueura) in the middle is incredible; she wins every ball."
Stanford's second goal was a thing of beauty. Riley found a gap along the left side and dribbled in toward the goal line before crossing a high pass that sophomore Camille Levin headed into the net.
"The formation we use leaves space on the wing and at that stage of the game people are working hard to make runs into the box and get open," Riley said. "I know Cammy is a great header and I saw her get open."
Stanford also showed that even when a team stops its three best scorers, there's a fourth or a fifth who will step up.
Levin scored her second goal of the season. She scored six last year en route to being honored as a freshman All-American.
"This was a College Cup type atmosphere (which included an overflow crowd of 2,400) and was good experience for the team," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "You need a little luck. If you do the right things you can create your own luck. We put them in an awkward situation and ended up with an own goal."
Stanford continues Pac-10 play with its final road trip of the regular season. The Cardinal plays at Washington State at 3 p.m. Friday and at Washington at noon Sunday.
As for Stanford's lofty rankings?
"Great, let's go practice," O'Hara said. "Our biggest game now is against Washington State."