Chioma Ubogagu is one of a handful of Stanford players who were part of the school's first national women's soccer championship team. She started as a champion and would love to finish as a champion.
"Every year we have two goals," Ubogagu said. "We want to win the Pac-12 championship and we want to win the national championship. We fell short last year and that's disappointing."
A lot of teams would consider an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament a success story. Stanford reached the previous five Final Fours, which included a national title in 2011, which means the Round of 16 is a step backward.
Stanford went unbeaten through 10 games last year. The Cardinal played .500 (6-6) the rest of the way, first losing at home to UCLA during conference play and then again losing to the Bruins in the NCAA tournament. UCLA (with Scared Heart Prep grad Abby Dahlkemper) went on to win its first national title.
This year's road to the Final Four comes with as many obstacles as Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe could throw in his team's way.
Stanford plays no fewer than seven past NCAA champions, including the opener against 21-time champion North Carolina on Friday, Aug. 22 at Duke. The Blue Devils, two-time national runner-ups, are Stanford's opponent two days later.
"Let's go," Cardinal senior midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta said. "It's great to start with great teams. It's the only way to get better."
After playing at two-time champion Portland, Stanford returns to play six straight at home. Least they relax, those games include past champions Notre Dame, Florida and Santa Clara.
"The expectations may be a little lower this year but for a competitor it's fun," Ratcliffe said. "You want to prove something."
LaBonta and senior forward Taylor Uhl were both named to the preseason Hermann Trophy watch list. Along with Ubogagu and fellow seniors Alex Doll, Hannah Farr, Kendall Romine, Haley Rosen and Laura Schmidt, LaBonta and Uhl will be counted upon for leadership.
"We were a young team last year," Ratcliffe said. "We had four and five freshmen starting at times. The little bit of difference might be experience. They were a little late to get some things last year. They all learned from that."
Stanford returns nine starters, including Uhl, Ubogagu, Romine, LaBonta and Doll. Farr was one of Stanford's top players off the bench and Rosen would have been had she not been limited to six games.
Junior defender Laura Liedle, perhaps the most underrated Cardinal player, also returns as does sophomores Stephanie Amack, Maddie Bauer and Jane Campbell.
Amack and Campbell, along with freshman Andi Russell, are currently playing with the U.S. Under-20 national team at the U20 Women's World Cup in Canada. That team will meet Korea in a quarterfinal match on Saturday in Toronto.
"Stephanie is versatile," Ratcliffe said. "She can play in the midfield or as an outside back. She's a very strong athlete. Andi can be a great addition. She could made an immediate impact. I can't wait to see her."
Campbell currently serves as the backup goalie for the Americans, behind UCLA's Katelyn Rowland. Campbell took over as a start for Stanford last year when senior Emily Oliver was forced to retire with a medical issue.
Juniors Sarah Cox and Katie Donahue were contributors last year and are joined by fellow junior Kate Bellinger.
The sophomore class made a big difference for the Cardinal as first-year player and that's likely to translate into solid seasons. In addition to Amack, Bauer and Campbell, Siobhan Cox, Megan Turner and Ryan Walker-Hartshorn proved to be valuable assets.
Sullivan leads a freshmen class that was considered one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. They include Menlo School grad Jaye Boissiere, Menlo-Atherton grad Zoe Pacalin and Gunn grad Sarah Robinson.
Forwards Kyra Carusa and Mariah Lee and goalie Alison Jahansouz add to the quality of the class.
"Our identity starts on the first day," LaBonta said. "Freshmen room with seniors, which means we're all in this together. We're players and it doesn't matter how old you are. I think we all come in with big puppy dog eyes and I know the older players helped me when I first arrived. They were very welcoming. We do things as a team. We talk constantly so we can all be on the same page. We talk about a lot of things but mostly we talk about soccer."
This story contains 782 words.
If you are a paid subscriber, check to make sure you have logged in. Otherwise our system cannot recognize you as having full free access to our site.
If you are a paid print subscriber and haven't yet set up an online account, click here to get your online account activated.