Stanford head coach Lele Forood and her tennis players find themselves in a familiar position this year heading into this week's Round of 16 in the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga.
A year ago in Urbana, Ill., the 12th-seeded Cardinal ran the table to win its 17th NCAA crown. The lowest-seeded team to win the championship, Stanford beat No. 5 USC, No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 Florida, then pulled out a 4-3 win against No. 3 Texas A&M in the final.
Last week, the Cardinal, ranked No. 11 and seeded No. 11 in this year's postseason draw, rolled through the first two rounds at Taube Family Tennis Stadium, blanking Quinnipiac and Long Beach State 4-0. It marked the third time Stanford has faced Quinnipiac in the first round, with Cardinal going on to claim national titles in 2004 and 2006.
"It feels like a similar situation to last year, where we've got a conference foe that was tough on us in the Round of 16," said Forood, referring to Cal. "It seems like we've been here before."
Stanford boasts an 18-2 overall record heading into Thursday's match against the Bears, who surged to a surprising 6-1 victory against the Cardinal in the Pac-12 regular-season finale on April 19. For Stanford, it was only the fifth defeat over the past 15 years on its home court. The Cardinal also suffered a 4-3 loss to UCLA on April 4.
"I think we had a lot of high hopes that we might be able to run the table," Forood said. "It didn't happen. Our conference, as usual, was very tough. We lost a tight one to UCLA and then Cal turned around what appeared to be a pretty good start by us into a loss on the last day of the season. It's usually a bummer to lose your last regular-season match, but we had some pretty good performances at Ojai in the Pac-12 Championships and I think we feel we're ready."
While Stanford has three newcomers in its six-player lineup, all have national and international tournament experience and have competed in high-pressure matches. Whether the Cardinal can seize the underdog role as added motivation again, remains to be seen.
"Certainly our players that have been through it have a sense of it," said Forood. I don't know for sure how the freshmen look at it, but they're enthusiastic and eager to see how they can contribute."
Leading the way for Stanford is senior Kristie Ahn. The third-ranked player in the country has compiled a 17-2 record against nationally-ranked opponents and is the unquestioned team leader. Ahn will turn professional this summer.
"First of all, she can do pretty much everything on the court," Forood said. "She's an excellent tactician, covers the court well and she's athletic. She doesn't have many flaws in her game."
Essentially the same six players have taken the court for the Cardinal this season, and all are ranked among the top 60 in the country, which qualifies them for the NCAA Singles Championship. That's the second-most in school history, with seven qualifying in 2005.
Additionally, two of three doubles teams are nationally ranked.
"I think everybody has improved a lot," said Forood. "All of our freshmen have performed very well."
Forood has also been pleased with the leadership of her upperclassmen.
"You never replace a two-time NCAA singles champion," she said of Nicole Gibbs. "Overall, we've done quite well. For Kristie to pretty much assume the position she did this year, which is having a commanding season at No. 1, was certainly expected throughout her four years, but it was just never quite happening for her because of untimely injuries. Great job by her."
Stanford traditionally plays its best tennis in the postseason, and there's a reason for that.
"I think it's the aura of the program, what's happened in the past," said Forood. "I think we've chosen as a program to do things differently the last five years with not playing the ITA National Team Indoor Championships and having a different schedule. We realize this hurts us in the rankings, so we just kind of accept that we don't really believe in the numbers, that we believe in our talent. We go into a tournament not really caring what our seeding is because we understand why we're not in the top three in the seedings."
The reason is simple: Stanford skips some big tournaments so team members don't miss school. It was a group decision and players supported Forood 100 percent.
"We just ignored the biggest tournament in February in Virginia that had the top 16 teams," he said. "We went in 2011 and won, but we missed a week of school and we're on the quarter system and it was unacceptable to everybody when we came back because of the amount of work and class time we missed. It's good exposure and great to play those teams, but we're going to try and set it up differently and play them in dual matches where we don't miss as much."
Asked if her players feel added pressure playing for such a successful program, Forood said the subject seldom comes up.
"I wouldn't say we talk about it in that sense, but I would say all the kids on our team know it," she said. "They know the history and that everyone wins a championship that's played here and that it's definitely an expectation every year. I don't like to bring that stuff up and hit them in the face with it. We just feel we're talented enough to be vying for a championship every year."
Many former players stay in contact with Forood, and some are expected to support the Cardinal in Athens. Last year, 15-20 players were on an email thread during the Stanford-Texas A&M match.
"It was quite hysterical," said Forood.
Added associate head coach Frankie Brennan, "A lot of businesses lost money that day."
One burden the team won't carry at Athens is continuing Stanford's streak of winning at least one NCAA team championship. Last year, women's tennis extended the streak to 37 consecutive years, a fact that wasn't lost on several players. However, the women's water polo team beat UCLA on Sunday to push the team streak to an NCAA-best 38 straight years.
"I think some of our players were aware of it," Forood said. "I don't get too concerned about it, but it was great when it happened."
NOTES: The 2014 ITA Division I women's awards were released this week and Forood was named Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year in the Northwest while Brennan received the Assistant Coach of the Year award for one of the 12 regions. Ahn was one of 12 Senior Player of the Year recipients, freshman Carol Zhao of Stanford was among the Players to Watch, and freshman Taylor Davidson was among the Rookie Player of the Year winners. For the Stanford men, Brandon Coupe was named Assistant Coach of the Year for the Northwest and John Morrissey was a recipient of the ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Sportsmanship and Leadership Award.