Stanford senior goalkeeper Emily Oliver had a lot to do with the Cardinal reaching its fifth consecutive Women's College Cup despite a 19 percent drop-off of goals. She enters the year as Stanford's all-time leader in save percentage, allowing 19 goals on 176 attempts over her first three years.
Oliver may have had a "down" season in 2012, due in part to an injury that forced her to miss nine games and left her a little out of shape, though that translated into an .882 save percentage and four shutouts.
"Emily is a leader, a competitor and a winner," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "She's a player you want on the field to lead the team. She's proven herself at the College Cup. She contributes to our success in so many ways."
While her 2012 statistics appear a little wacky, compared to the previous year's .929 save percentage while leading the Cardinal to the national championship her sophomore year, you can set those stats aside; Oliver remained an integral part of Stanford's defense last year.
"One of the biggest things is being a voice on the field," Oliver said earlier this week as the Cardinal prepared for its season-opener at Boston College on Friday. "Sometimes you can't hear the coach, so it is important that that I be mentally tuned into the game. Goalies can see everything unfold and we can make sure we're organized and attacking the way we should be."
Oliver and the Cardinal begin the season with high expectations yet again. Even with the heart of last year's defense graduated, Stanford is ranked as high as second in some national polls and the idea of winning another title is no mere pipe dream.
Gone are All-Americans Alica Garciamendez, Mariah Nogueira and Rachel Quon and they were a part of Oliver's first three years, in which Stanford compiled a 69-3-4 overall record and outscored its opponents 206-36. Oliver has participated with a national championship team, a national runner-up team and a national semifinalist team.
"It's been great to become one of the big names in women's college soccer," Oliver said. "Players like Julie Foudy, Nicole Barnhart and Rachel Buehler have paved the way and we're benefiting from it."
Foudy played on Stanford's first Final Four team in 1993. After a 15-year absence, the Cardinal has reached the past five College Cups, have won four consecutive Pac-12 titles and enter the season with all kinds of streaks intact, including a 152-match unbeaten streak when scoring a goal, a 67-match unbeaten streak at home, a 42-match conference winning streak and a 20-match home winning streak in NCAA tournament games.
Oliver is one of six returning starters, mostly offensive players like senior forward Courtney Verloo, who led the team with 31 points on 10 goals and 11 assists, and sophomore forward Chioma Ubogagu, who was second on the team with 21 points (five goals, 11 assists) last year.
Ubogagu also played on the U.S. national under-23 team.
The offense received a boost during the offseason when Taylor Uhl, the NCAA's leading scorer last year, transferred to Stanford from Minnesota.
"Taylor has been a great boost to the squad," Ratcliffe said. "She's a fantastic person and is playing well up front."
Sophomore Laura Liedle, who started 23 games last season, is Stanford's top returning defender. She played with the U.S. national U20 team this summer. Junior midfielder Hannah Farr, also a member of Stanford's lacrosse team, appeared in 23 games last year.
Returning starters junior forward Alex Doll was fourth in scoring in 2012 and junior midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta was among the top eight.
Other returners include senior forwards Shelby Payne, Sydney Payne and Natalie Griffen, sophomore forward Haley Rosen, senior midfielder Taylor McCann, sophomore midfielder Katie Donahue, senior goalkeeper Aly Gleason, junior defenders Kendall Romine and Lauren Schmidt and sophomore defender Maya Theuer.
"This senior class has had an amazing career so far," Ratcliffe said. "I'd think they would want to cap it off with another Pac-12 title and national championship. If they could do it, they would go down as one of the best ever."
Shelby Payne is returning from an injury that forced her to miss all but the first three matches of last season and sophomore midfielder Kate Bettinger, currently out with an injury, saw action last year. Sophomore goalkeeper Sarah Cox is also in the mix.
Liedle will be key for the Stanford defense. The Cardinal will also need solids contributions from freshmen defenders Stephanie Amack, Maddie Bauer, Siobhan Cox, Carly Olszewski and Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, also a member of the U20 team, in its bid for a sixth straight trip to the Final Four.
The freshmen class also includes goalkeeper Jane Campbell and forwards Nathalie Marie and Megan Turner.
"Every year you lose players and gain players," Oliver said. "The strength of this team and the staff is how great they are at integrating new players both on and off the field. We have a great team chemistry. It was a fantastic experience playing behind such great players and I am sure whoever will be out there, will be solid."
The recruiting class of 2013 was ranked second in the nation, behind North Carolina, by Top Drawer Soccer. Campbell was the first high school goalie invited to try out for the U.S. national team since Hope Solo.
"Women's soccer continues to develop," Ratcliffe said. "There are so many great players out there that it is difficult to predict anything. The proving ground comes in the next 20 games."