Stanford, UCLA meet in the Elite Eight
Midfielder Nina Watkins comprises exactly one-tenth of the senior class playing for Stanford's top-ranked women's soccer team. She hopes to end her career as a part of the most successful senior class in Cardinal history.
Watkins did her part Sunday, scoring a goal in Stanford's 3-0 victory over visiting Denver in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. It was her first game in 11 games.
"There are 10 of us seniors and we have all the girls together on the same page," Watkins said. "We've gone through all this the past four years. We know what it takes and it means to us. We've lost and won and know what both feels like. I don't want to go without a national championship."
Stanford would have to win the national title for a second straight year to surpass last year's senior class and the Cardinal is certainly capable. The seniors are 93-3-4 in their careers, including a 51-0-1 mark at home.
There's still a tough road ahead, beginning with a rematch against Pac-12 rival UCLA. The sixth-ranked Bruins (18-2-2) defeated San Diego State, 3-0, Saturday and will visit Stanford for a match Friday night at 7 p.m. Sacred Heart Prep grad Abby Dahlkemper is one of the Bruins' standout starters.
"It's going to be a great game," Watkins said. "It will be two top teams going at each other. They've grown so much and we've grown a lot. We'll play the game we know how to play."
The Elite Eight will also include No. 13 North Carolina and No. 2 BYU, unranked Notre Dame and No. 7 Florida State, No. 19 Duke and No. 5 Penn State —according to the NSCAA coaches' poll.
"We have a deep team," Stanford senior defender Rachel Quon said. "Anyone on the bench can come in and play. The past four years have been incredible, and each team has been different. I hope we can finish this season right."
The Cardinal was much more organized and disciplined than it was two nights earlier, in a 2-1 win over Santa Clara. Denver never got a shot on goal and took five shots overall. With senior defender Alina Garciamendez, who made her 100th career start, clogging the middle, the Pioneers found it difficult to penetrate deep into Stanford territory. Garciamendez broke the team record, held by Lindsay Taylor (2008-11) on Friday in a win over Santa Clara.
"We needed to be at our best and for them not to be at their best," Denver coach Jeff Hooker said. "They are well-coached with a lot of talent. They are good athletes and good soccer players."
Alex Doll and Chioma Ubogagu also scored for the Cardinal. Doll scored her sixth goal of the season, tying her with Garciamendez for third on the team behind Courtney Verloo (10) and Mariah Nogueira (7).
Doll's goal, in the ninth minute, was assisted by Verloo and Ubogagu. Watkins scored just over 11 minutes into the second half, using her left foot to one-time a bullet into the net from 25 yards out. Lo'eau LaBonta put the pass right on her foot.
Ubogagu's goal came late. She finished a through ball from Sydney Payne.
Hooker and Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe both played soccer at UCLA, though never at the same time. The Pioneers reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.
Stanford, meanwhile, has won nine straight NCAA matches, and 19 straight tournament matches at home.
The Cardinal is seeking its fifth straight trip to the College Cup. Stanford carries a 151-match unbeaten streak when scoring a goal, a 101-match match home winning streak when scoring a goal and a 66-match home unbeaten streak into its match against the Bruins.
"UCLA always has a great team," Quon said. "We look forward to playing them. We know what UCLA is like and they know us. It will be tough but we have to play to our strengths."
Stanford and UCLA have combined for 18 of the 19 possible conference championships and are frequent rivals in the postseason. This will be their third tournament meeting in four years.
Stanford leads the series with UCLA, 11-9-3 and has won its past six meetings since 2009 while outscoring the Bruins 15-3 during that span.
The teams last met on Oct. 28 with Stanford winning, 2-1, with goals in the 77th and 79th minutes to clinch a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title. The last time the teams met in Cagan Stadium, Stanford came away with a 4-1 victory in 2011.