There is no better time for the No. 17-ranked Stanford women's tennis team to make a statement about its postseason chances than Saturday, when the Cardinal hosts No. 1 California at Taube Family Tennis Stadium at noon.
Stanford (12-5, 7-1 Pac-12) hasn't been ranked among the top 10 since early February, and the Cardinal is unlikely to climb that high even with an upset of California (19-0, 7-0 Pac-12), the country's only remaining undefeated team.
But, a win on Saturday would vault Stanford into contention for the Pac-12 title, and possibly force the addition of a make-up match next week prior to the start of the Pac-12 Championships in Ojai.
A Stanford victory coupled with a UCLA win over USC would result in the Cardinal winning the conference outright. A Stanford triumph combined with a USC win over UCLA would result in the Cardinal and Trojans facing off next Wednesday at a neutral site.
At this point, another signature victory really couldn't hurt. Stanford, which already owns notable wins over Florida, TCU and UCLA, remains in the mix to serve as a possible host site for NCAA Championships first and second rounds.
However, hosting duties are limited to the nation's top 16 programs as determined by the selection committee. A strong schedule will likely enhance Stanford's resume, but all the guesswork can be eliminated by knocking off the Golden Bears, who are enjoying their best start in school history.
Here's the thing: Stanford actually matches up well against California, with the Cardinal having won 10 of the past 15 meetings, including each of the past two seasons in dramatic fashion during the NCAA Championships Round of 16. The Golden Bears posted a 4-3 win two weeks ago in Berkeley, but that match did not factor into the conference standings and the Cardinal rallied to close the gap after trailing 4-1.
If it's possible to consider an opponent ranked outside the nation's top 15 as "dangerous", that would be Stanford. The Cardinal has won 10 of its past 12 NCAA Tournament matches when seeded lower than its opponent, including four in a row on the way to becoming the lowest-seeded squad (No. 12) to capture a national championship in 2013.
Krista Hardebeck was a freshman on that NCAA title team, and she's also Stanford's hottest player as of late. Hardebeck (20-5 overall, 16-1 duals) is riding a 14-match winning streak in her senior campaign since suffering her most recent loss on Jan. 30.
Stanford's lineup has also received a boost with the addition of Carol Zhao (6-1 overall, 6-1 duals). The Cardinal boasts a 6-1 record with Zhao in the lineup compared to a 6-4 mark when the 2015 NCAA Singles runner-up and three-time All-American does not play. Zhao missed the entire fall as she had been training with the Canadian National Team and competing in pro tournaments. Zhao attended classes in the fall and has been enrolled in full-time units this quarter.
The Cardinal has been particularly strong in doubles, losing the point in only three matches this season. Two doubles teams are ranked, including the nation's No. 4 duo of Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle (21-4 overall, 9-3 duals).
Stanford continues Pac-12 play this weekend at home with a three-game series against No. 17/12 Arizona.
The series begins Friday at 5 p.m., continues Saturday at 5 p.m. and concludes Sunday at 4 p.m. All three games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
The Cardinal (13-20, 0-9 Pac-12) went 1-3 last week, picking up an 11-3 victory against Pacific before dropping a three-game set at No. 13/15 UCLA. Stanford played well against the Bruins, but suffered a late comeback defeat in the opener and could not find the hit needed to break through in the series finale, losing 2-1.
After a tough couple weeks offensively, Stanford's bats came alive last week led by Kylie Sorenson who hit .500 (6-for-12) with two doubles, four runs, an RBI and two walks. Haley Snyder had a big week, hitting .429 (6-for-14) with five RBI, four runs, a home run and a .714 slugging percentage. Lauren Wegner (.400, 4-for-10) and Whitney Burks (.500, 3-for-6) also had strong showings at the plate.
Snyder and Carolyn Lee provided quality outings in each of their two starts this past week. Snyder picked up a victory against Pacific and pitched well in the second game against UCLA. Lee took two losses against the Bruins but continued to keep Stanford within striking distance.
Lee was particularly impressive in the finale at UCLA, pitching her 11th complete game of the season and holding the Bruins to two runs on seven hits and three walks with three strikeouts.
Fifth-ranked Stanford (19-5, 17-5 MPSF) opens the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament at home by hosting sixth-ranked UC Santa Barbara (19-9, 14-8 MPSF) on Saturday in Maples Pavilion at 7 p.m. The first 100 Stanford students will receive free admission.
UC Santa Barbara is a veteran squad led by senior setter Jonah Seif, who has guided the offense to a .293 team attack percentage. Seif is third in the MPSF with 10.35 assists per set, 10th in aces (0.35) and 15th in digs (1.75). Redshirt junior Jacob Delson paces the squad with 3.29 kills, ranking seventh in the MPSF, while redshirt junior opposite Matt Marsh adds 3.27 kills and 0.40 aces per set. Stanford and UCSB split the season series, each winning on its home court.
Stanford and UCSB are meeting for just the third time in the postseason. The Gauchos won the most recent meeting in the 1996 MPSF Tournament by a 3-1 margin. The Cardinal won the initial meeting back in 1990 in the WIVA Tournament, 3-1.
Stanford dropped its final two regular-season matches on the road last week, falling 3-0 at UCLA and 3-1 at UC Santa Barbara. The losses dropped the Cardinal out of first place in the MPSF and into a three-way tie for second. Stanford received the No. 4 seed in the MPSF Tournament due to tiebreaker rules against UCLA (No. 2) and Long Beach State (No. 3).
Stanford ranks second in the MPSF in hitting percentage (.334) and aces (148). The Cardinal is also third in kills (13.02), fourth in opponent hitting percentage (.241) and fifth in assists (12.05).
Stanford's four seniors -- Madison Hayden, Conrad Kaminski, James Shaw and Alex Stephanus -- account for 54 percent of the team's kills this season. Hayden leads the way, ranking fifth in the MPSF with 3.44 kills and 3.99 points per set. Kaminski is third in the conference with a .487 attack percentage, while Shaw is fifth in assists (10.06) and eighth in aces (0.36).