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Stanford women's soccer begins another quest for NCAA title

 

Laura Liedle watched the Stanford women's soccer team win the national title in 2011. She was on the field the following fall when the Cardinal reached the College Cup Final Four.

Liedle hopes a return trip is in store for the third-ranked Cardinal (17-1-2), which hosts Cal State Fullerton (10-7-4) in a first-round match of the NCAA tournament on Friday at 7 p.m.

Stanford qualified for its 17th consecutive postseason, though the Cardinal has reached the Final Four six times in its history, including five of the past six years.

Liedle, now a junior, was a freshman at Torrey Pines High in San Diego, the alma mater of Olympic gold medalist and former Stanford All-American Rachel Buehler, when the Cardinal began its run of five consecutive Final Four trips in 2008.

"I knew I wanted to go to a school in a top conference that had a chance to win and go far," Liedle said. "Ultimately it's about how you play. Every season is different, though every year our mindset going into the tournament is to win it."

Liedle, who has played in the United States national team program since 2008, enjoyed a spectacular freshman season with the then-reigning national champions and was named a freshman All-American.

She played every second of Stanford's 1-0 double-overtime loss to North Carolina in the 2012 national semifinal. That made beating the Tar Heels, for the first time ever, to open this season doubly special.

"That was huge," Liedle said. "It set the tone for the season. We were undefeated for a long time and that really boosted our confidence."

The Cardinal opened the year with some question marks, starting five freshmen and sophomores against the Tar Heels.

Just as Liedle became a significant contributor her first season, Andi Sullivan did the same this year, earning Freshman/Newcomer of the Year honors in the Pac-12. She was late in joining Stanford because of her commitment to the U.S. Under-20 National Team. Stephanie Amack and Jane Campbell were also on that team. All three arrived just in time for the North Carolina match.

"When they won I think they realized they really could go far," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "Ever since they've been working really hard."

Stanford was tested by a grueling schedule that included seven former national champions. The Cardinal is 10-1-1 against teams that made the NCAA tournament. The loss came at defending national champion UCLA, which enters the postseason as the overall No. 1 seed.

Stanford, also a No. 1 seed along with Texas A&M and Florida State, did not allow a goal to a nonconference opponent and recorded 15 shutouts.

The Cardinal ranks fourth nationally in goals-against average at .386. The Bruins, at .196, lead the nation. Should it come to a Stanford-UCLA title match, the Cardinal certainly will remember it was one of the four teams that scored against the Bruins.

Sullivan also was named first team All-Pac-12 this week with seniors Lo'eau LaBonta and Chioma Ubogagu. Campbell was a second-team pick while Amack and Liedle were honorable mention.

Sacred Heart Prep grad Abby Dahlkemper, a center back for the Bruins, was honored as the conference's Defensive Player of the Year and UCLA's Katelyn Rowland was named Goalkeeper of the Year. Rowland started ahead of Campbell on the Under-20 team over the summer.

The Pac-12 leads all conferences with nine teams in the tournament. The 14-team SEC follows with eight teams while the 14-team ACC and nine-team Big 12 will have six representatives in this year's tournament.

"That's fantastic for the Pac-12," Ratcliffe said. "I'm not surprised. Every year the women's playoffs are more wide open because there are so many talented teams and so many well-coached teams."

The Titans reached the tournament after winning both the Big West regular-season and conference tournament titles. They are unbeaten (8-0-2) in their past 10 matches.

Cal State Fullerton, which ranks 51st in the nation in GAA, makes its second straight trip to Stanford to open NCAA play. The Titans are 0-4-2 against the field.

Liedle's introduction to college soccer came from a senior leadership group that included Alina Garciamendez, Rachel Quon, Marjani Hing-Glover and Mariah Nogueira.

"They took a leading role and brought the team together," Liedle said. "They had us all on the same page. It's a lot like the senior class this year."

The seniors LaBonta, Ubogagu, Alex Doll, Kendall Romine, Haley Rosen, Hannah Farr, Lauren Schmidt and Taylor Uhl (who transferred from Minnesota last year) still can remember the feeling of hoisting the championship trophy.

Ubogagu's pass to Camille Levin started the sequence that led to the winning goal. Doll cleared the ball in the final moments Romine also was on the field when the final buzzer sounded. LaBonta, Rosen and Farr were limited due to injuries and Schmidt played in a first round NCAA match that season.

"The older players have taken ownership," Ratcliffe said. "The team has gotten better every week and people have found their roles and are playing together. They mentally want to win the whole thing."

With a large group of dedicated, experienced players who have been to the Final Four, there's a lot to like about Stanford.

"The goal is always the same but how we get there is always different," Liedle said. "We have to focus on playing well together. There's always stuff to work on. We'll be ready."

Stanford's No. 1 seed means it can host the first four rounds provided it keeps winning. The CSUF-Cardinal winner meets the Oklahoma-Arkansas winner in the second round.

"We have to take advantage of the opportunity," Liedle said.

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