By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Christen Press ordered some lunch and waited for the NCAA women's soccer tournament pairings to be announced, along with her Stanford teammates, on a big screen television at Jimmy V's cafe on the Stanford campus.
She never did get a chance to eat her lunch. The senior forward was simply too excited in anticipation, exhilaration and preparation for Friday night's opening match.
"This is the first step of the journey," Press said. "It's a tradition to be here for the announcements. I'm more excited this year. I really want this senior class to go out on a good note."
Press and fellow seniors Allison McCann, Kira Maker and Morgan Redman have each played integral roles in bring the top-ranked, undefeated and overall No. 1 seeded Cardinal (18-0-2) to the brink of another championship run.
They will take to the field against visiting Sacramento State (9-9-1) for the first round of the tournament at 7 p.m. Friday night. As long as it keeps winning, Stanford remains at home through the first four rounds.
Long Beach State (14-5-2) and Santa Clara (12-6-2) also play in the first round at Stanford, with first kick scheduled at 4:30 p.m.
UCLA, BYU, Fresno State and Central Florida are also in the Stanford Regional. Those four teams play the first two rounds on Thursday and Saturday at UCLA.
Three years ago, as freshmen new to the process, the current Stanford seniors waited and watched as the proceedings unfolded, with fifth-year seniors Rachel Buehler and Shari Summers the team leaders.
Stanford also opened with Sacramento State that year, winning 7-0. Press scored the first goal 37 seconds into the contest with an assist from McCann. That run lasted three rounds.
Press has seen the team move closer and closer to the top ever since. The Cardinal will be looking for its third straight appearance in the Final Four this season and fourth overall.
"Being close, getting there and not winning it, makes us want it even more this year," Press said. "Soccer is such a crazy sport. We could be playing Santa Clara and UCLA in our next games, but we have to focus on Sacramento State first."
Press and McCann, most notably, have seen the pitfalls first hand. They know, for example, that Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith will make adjustments and play a different kind of game in the tournament than in the regular season.
Smith is the architect of the Broncos' program that has won the national championship in 2001, was the national runnerup in 2002, and has been to10 College Cups and 14 quarterfinals. UCLA, coached by junior national team coach Jillian Ellis, has reached the College Cup the previous eight years in succession.
"The thought of knowing Friday could be the last time I ever play soccer makes it even more meaningful," McCann said. "We just want to keep having fun, keep playing soccer and stay level-headed."
The Cardinal enters the tournament with a 31-match home winning streak and a 17-match overall winning streak, and has won its past eight NCAA tournament matches at home.
Press leads the nation in goals (23) and points (53). She is Stanford's career leader in goals, points, and assists. Freshman goalkeeper Emily Oliver is third in the nation in goals-against average (0.299).
"You always need a little luck," McCann said. "We've been so focused and such a tightly-knit group, we all know we are capable of doing it. Maybe in the past we were a little unsure. Not now. Now we know we can do it."
Press, the favorite to win the Hermann Trophy awarded to the nation's top college soccer player, watched Kelley O'Hara, last year's recipient, go through a similar season last year.
"I could see the pressure she put upon herself and how she handled it," Press said. "It's a lot being a senior. We have a small senior class this year and that's made for a totally different experience. We've been together all four years, off and on the field. We are four polar opposites as people but soccer brings us together. We're always talking about what it takes and what it means to be seniors."
McCann said she had Summers as a role model, especially as they were both midfielders and played together.
"She was great at showing me the ropes," McCann said. "She had such great ball control and field vision."
Friday's winners meet Sunday at 1 p.m. with a berth in the Sweet Sixteen at stake.
"The bracket looks good," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "We're excited for the challenge. It's going to be competitive and every game is do-or-die."
Stanford is joined by fellow No. 1 seeds Portland, Maryland and defending national champion North Carolina, which edged Stanford, 1-0, in last year's final.
"We've got to take the momentum from the regular season into the playoffs, perform to the best of our ability, get positive results and move forward," Ratcliffe said. "The team's performing very well, but I expect us to get better."
Stanford is 11-0-2 against the NCAA field, which includes six Pac-10 victories. Oregon State, UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Washington and California also qualified for the tournament.
Sacramento State advanced to the NCAA tournament for the second time in its history, beating top-seeded Northern Arizona, 1-0, in the Big Sky Conference tournament in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Stanford wrapped up its second straight unbeaten season (9-0) in the Pac-10 with a 3-0 victory over visiting Oregon on Sunday. It was Senior Day for the Cardinal and, hopefully for them, not the last time they'll be celebrating.