By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
When the women's soccer season began in August, all eyes were on the Stanford-Notre Dame contest, a rematch of last year's national championship game. As it turned out, beating Penn State in the season opener was far more impressive.
The top-ranked and overall No. 1 seeded Cardinal (19-0-1) opens the NCAA tournament at home against Montana on Friday night at 7 p.m. The Grizzlies (6-11-4) won the Big Sky tournament title to earn a trip to the Bay Area.
Stanford enjoys a strong challenge in its nonconference schedule, which is why teams like Notre Dame, Maryland and North Carolina often appear. Penn State was supposed to be one of the easier tests.
It hasn't turned out that way. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten Conference title and was on a 13-match winning streak before losing in its tournament championship game to Illinois.
Penn State's Maya Hayes did not get a shot off against Stanford and then went on to lead the nation with 27 goals.
This is all just another way of suggesting that women's soccer is no longer limited to a handful of successful teams and that the NCAA tournament is full of competitive soccer squads that could win on any given day.
Overall, the Cardinal played 10 teams during the regular season, four of them from the Pac-12, which earned spots in the postseason. Penn State and UC Irvine were the most successful, each winning their respective regular season titles, and then both losing in their conference tournaments.
But what of Notre Dame, you may ask. The Irish may still reach the title game but will have a more difficult time of it this year. They finished third in the National Division of the Big East Conference, and had the fifth most points overall.
Notre Dame suffered seven losses (Penn State and the Anteaters combined for eight losses) while the Tar Heels, who Stanford did not play this year, yet, finished with five losses and in third place in the ACC.
Portland, which has won the national title, was fifth in the West Coast Conference and enters the postseason with an overall .500 mark. Santa Clara, also a former national champion, lost on the final day of the conference season and finished third. The Broncos' only other loss was to Stanford.
Maryland, which is responsible for the only blemish on the Cardinal record to date, went nowhere in the ACC, finishing seventh, and still made the postseason.
UCLA, a Final Four regular, finished second to Stanford in the Pac-12 and the Bruins' only loss was at Stanford. California, Washington State and Oregon State were also named as at-large teams.
"Everything is a preparation for the postseason," Stanford assistant coach Nicole Van Dyke said. "Teams playing us different ways, having to prepare differently . . . we can't really let up."
The Cardinal may be favored to win its first national title after reaching the past two championship matches, but the road remains full of dips, sudden turns and no passing lanes.
Stanford may be the overwhelming favorite to get by Montana this week and host either Texas or South Carolina next week, but there are no givens. The Cardinal must maintain focus or risk giving up something cheap.
"I want see us play our best in the final game," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said.
Luckily, the Cardinal can play at home the next four games if it keeps winning. The senior class of Lindsay Taylor, Teresa Noyola, Camille Levin and Kristy Zurmuhlen, has not lost a home match during their distinguished careers.
"The crowd is critical to our success," Ratcliffe said. "We've had a few sold-out crowds and they help us. It's like a 12th man on the field for us. We really appreciate all the support we're getting."
Stanford made its final tuneup for the postseason a good one as Taylor and Zurmuhlen scored within 40 seconds of each other in the first half to lead Stanford to a 2-0 victory over Cal in a rainy Pac-12 women's soccer season finale last Friday night. The victory allowed the Cardinal to earn its place in history.
Stanford (19-0-1 overall, 11-0 Pac-12) became just the second school to finish three consecutive regular seasons unbeaten, and the first to do so since North Carolina from 1991-93. Stanford extended its regular-season unbeaten streak to 62, its home winning streak to 46, and its conference winning streak to 31.
The four-member senior class of Camille Levin, Teresa Noyola, Taylor, and Zurmuhlen has a regular-season record of 75-1-1 and has never lost at home.