Perhaps for the first time, the Stanford women's lacrosse program can grip the the edge of national prominence.
The program has grown and developed in coach Amy Bokker's five previous seasons, winning its eighth Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title in nine years last spring and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in its history.
Each step taken means the next one is even closer. For a team that returns 11 of 12 starters and 260 of its 272 goals (96 percent), the notion of reaching the NCAA final four grows more realistic -- especially when considering that seven 2013 starters were freshmen and sophomores and that all six players who scored 28 or more goals are back.
The entire starting attack unit returns, with the focus on Rachel Ozer, who had 48 goals, 24 assists and 72 points last year to lead the team in all three categories. The redshirt junior is shifty, quick, and "a great finisher," Bokker said.
Julia Burns scored 33 goals, good for No. 2 on the team, as a freshman and offers a crafty style with a wide variety of shots. She is complemented by Kyle Fraser (31 goals) and Meredith Kalinowski, who is solid and steady.
The Cardinal attack also landed a big addition -- 6-foot Alexandra Crerend, a sophomore transfer from Brown. Crerend tied for the Bears' lead in goals with 24, and had 17 draw controls. Freshman Kelsey Murray, a big-time recruit from Illinois, could challenge for a starting position and provides strong finishing skills.
As Stanford traveled to Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium for games against the U.S. National Team and the host school during the fall season, Bokker reminded her team that the final four would be played at the same field in a few months' time.
"Remember what this place looks like," she told them. "Remember what it feels like, what it smells like. Now, you know what to expect if we reach our goal and return here in May."
The Cardinal opens its season on Saturday with a 1 p.m. home game against Ohio State at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium, the site of the first three this season. Stanford, the favorite in a preseason vote of conference coaches, opens MPSF play on March 5 at Fresno State.
Stanford (14-6 overall, 6-2 in the MPSF in '13) not only fights to increase its visibility on a national scale, but takes seriously its role as flagbearer for the sport in the west. Interest in lacrosse continues to explode throughout the Bay Area and the region and Stanford has been at the center of that growth.
Stanford also is positioning itself to be a trendsetter in another area -- by hosting the first NCAA women's tournament game played West of the Mississippi. A strong nonconference season and another MPSF title could earn a high enough seed to play host to the opening rounds. If so, it would be a fitting tribute and reward, if you will, to the burgeoning lacrosse region.
When Bokker arrived, nearly every player came from the East Coast area and Mid-Atlantic lacrosse hotbeds. But in the years since, Stanford has embraced every region of the country in its recruiting scope, including sunbelt areas that traditionally have gone unnoticed. Stanford has six players from California and five from Texas. Its most recent round of recruits consisted of 10 players from 10 different states.
Stanford, as far as lacrosse is concerned, truly is America's Team.
"There's starting to be a lot more talent out here that the rest of the country is missing," Bokker said. "We want to be able to show that growth to the country by how well our team can do."
This year's team has high expectations, not only to make an impact on a national scale, but to create a truly national stage for the sport itself.
Stanford is optimistic as it begins the new season, but not blindly so. The Cardinal endured enough one-goal games and even an upset last year at the hands of sixth-place UC Davis to know that optimism is best tempered by an understanding that each game will be a fight.