Forgive senior Krista Hardebeck should she look unconcerned regarding the slim chances of a deep run into the NCAA tournament for the 15th-seeded Stanford women's tennis team. She knows better, having experienced an unlikely run to the national title in her freshman year.
The pursuit of NCAA championship No. 18, and the first since 2013, begins this weekend for the Cardinal women with first- and second-round matches on Stanford's home courts at Taube Family Tennis Center.
The Cardinal (14-5) opens at 2 p.m. Friday against Texas A&M Corpus Christi (24-0), the nation's last remaining undefeated team. Texas A&M (16-10) and Denver (21-2) play at 11 a.m.
Friday's winners meet Saturday for a berth in the Round of 16 in Tulsa and a possible date with second-seeded Florida.
Hardebeck, the 2013 Regional Rookie of the Year and All-American, was a member of the then-12th-seeded Cardinal that became the lowest-seeded team to win the NCAA title. Stanford knocked off four of the top five seeded teams to become the champion.
The route could be even tougher this year, with possible matches against the top three seeds along the way.
Hardebeck has reason to be optimistic and one reason is her experience as a freshman. There's also another big reason.
"We have wins over the first- and second-ranked teams in the country," she said. "We're going into the tournament with a lot of confidence."
Hardebeck, one of two seniors on the team with Lindsay Kostas, is enjoying her best season yet. She's 23-6 overall, including a 17-1 mark in dual meets, and is known for her success in must-win matches.
To hear her tell it, it's easier to be playing in a match-deciding set than being one of the cheerleaders.
"It's way worse to watch," Hardebeck said. "You want your teammate to win so much, for her and her for the team, and you get so nervous. It's difficult having to watch."
Hardebeck clinched Stanford's 4-3 win over Florida earlier in the season, a repeat of her effort against the Gators in the national semifinal three years ago.
"You try and keep the same mindset when your playing in those matches," she said. "You're actually more focused and not caught up in the moment."
Hardebeck and Kostas are a combined 127-84 in their time at Stanford, and would love nothing more than to go out the same way they came in: as national champs.
"It's very special because this could be the last time I compete in tennis, and its certainly my last time in college," Hardebeck said. "You appreciate every moment."
It's no surprise that winning the national title as a freshman is Hardebeck's top memory. That could change this year.
"I think everybody knows we're seeded below our capabilities," Hardebeck said. "But it really doesn't matter now. We need to focus on the next match up. If we want to win the title, we're going to have to beat great teams every step of the way."
The Cardinal's season is on an upswing. At one time during the regular season, Stanford was fifth in the Pac-12 Conference. Then came the win over then top-ranked and undefeated California, followed by a victory over USC to clinch the conference title.
The recent success has coincided with the return of Carol Zhao, the Cardinal's top player last year and NCAA singles runner-up. She took the fall and winter seasons to play on the pro circuit and test herself against some of the nation's top professionals.
Zhao, a three-time All-American, is 8-1 since returning to the lineup. Stanford is 8-1 with her and 6-4 without.
"Carol really helps strengthen the lineup," Hardebeck said. "Any time you can add an extremely talented player, it's going to help. We're all a little more comfortable. At the end of the day, every point counts and we can't get caught up in what position we're playing. We have to take care of our own court."
Taylor Davidson (20-12 overall, 10-7 duals) played at the top of the ladder when Zhao was out, with Caroline Doyle (20-10, 12-6) also playing up. Hardebeck has experience playing in the top four spots while freshmen Caroline Lampl (25-5, 16-2) and Melissa Lord (19-12, 10-7) gaining the most experience in playing up a spot. The two freshmen have combined to record nine match-clinching points.
The Cardinal is 10-2 in the last 12 matches its played as the lower seed in the NCAA tournament, another reason to think Stanford retains a good chance to compete for the title. The school is 136-18 all-time in the NCAA tournament and current coach Lele Forood (382-37) has presided over seven national championship teams.
"Lele is absolutely incredible. We all love her so much," Hardebeck said. "She really cares about us, she's knowledgeable and she's guided us through all this."
Hardebeck teams with Lampl in doubles and the duo is 17-8 overall, 10-3 in duals. Zhao joined Lord as a doubles team and the pair reached the Pac-12 championship match despite having played together just nine times.
Davidson and Doyle play at No. 1 doubles. They became a duo for the first time in September and earned a trip to the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships in New York. They are 22-7, 9-5 in duals.
Stanford (14-10) is set for its 37th all-time appearance in the NCAA tournament this weekend and will take on Notre Dame (15-13) Saturday morning at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
The winner advances to Sunday's second round and will play Valparaiso (20-5) or the host Wildcats (25-4).
Stanford opens postseason play on the road for the fourth consecutive season. The Cardinal had dropped its first-round match in back-to-back seasons until last season when it topped Tennessee, 4-2, before losing to Duke, 4-1.
Stanford, ranked as high as No. 17 this year, has seen mixed results in a competitive season that included both a five-match winning streak and a five-match losing streak. Four of its losses were by 4-3 scores.
Tom Fawcett has compiled a stellar sophomore campaign thus far to lead the Cardinal. He owns a 20-7 overall record and 14-5 dual record. Fawcett has been ranked as high as No. 3 this season with 13 wins over ranked opponents.
Fawcett will represent Stanford in the NCAA singles and doubles tournament entering as the No. 9 singles seed. Maciek Romanowicz is his doubles partner.
The duo are currently ranked No. 23 with a record of 15-5 overall and 9-3 at the No. 1 spot in duals. They have won four straight entering the tournament.
Stanford owns a 104-21 all-time record in the postseason. The Cardinal has won 17 NCAA championships, including 15 since the NCAA tournament went to its present format in 1977. The most recent crown was in 2000.
Notre Dame reached the quarterfinal of the ACC tournament and boasts two ranked players in No. 35 Quentin Monaghan and Josh Hagar at 105.