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NCAA Quarterfinal Preview: Stanford searching for perfection

The quarterfinals of the NCAA Women’s Division 1 soccer championship begin on Friday, and the Stanford Cardinal (23-0-0) is just three wins from completing a perfect season.

Friday’s match is against ACC foe Boston College (18-3-2).  The two teams have met just once all-time, with Stanford winning 3-0 on August 31, 2008.  Incredibly, tickets for the game sold-out just five hours after going on sale, showing that the Cardinal faithful will be out in full-force for this match.

The fans have been turning out all season to see the likes of Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press win every home game, including a dominating 4-1 win over Cal in the Pac-10 Championship game.  Laird Q. Cagan Stadium has all the charm of a small college facility, from students standing just inches from the touchline in the corners to an over-sized tree that makes its presence known by casting a huge shadow over the field.

Stanford Head Coach Paul Ratcliffe credits the team’s attractive blend of soccer for bringing in the crowds, and is thankful for the great environment the fans produce.  There are few venues in the country that fill up on a consistent basis for women’s college soccer, and the Kelley O’Hara likes of Laird Q. Cagan Stadium at Stanford is up there with some of the more notable, such as the avid fans at Portland (another quarterfinalist).

But Stanford has taken a different road to the this stage of the postseason than the other seven teams left.  Sure, the Cardinal is the only undefeated team left in Division 1, but it has not produced any eye-opening results.

While the three other No. 1 seeds have had at least one game in the tournament that came in cruise-control mode (see UCLA’s 7-1 first round win or 5-0 second round win, FSU’s 4-1 first round win, UNC’s 4-0 second round win, and several others), Stanford has been winning relatively simply.  With a 2-0 win to kick-off the tournament against Northern Arizona, a 2-0 win over BYU in the second round and a 1-0 win over Santa Clara last Friday, Stanford has just been getting the job done.

“We are not worried about trying to win three or four to nothing, it is just about getting results,” said Ratcliffe, the 2009 Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

Next up for the unbeaten Cardinal is the Boston College Eagles, who will be considered significant underdogs.  The jet lag of a cross-country flight should not be a big factor with BC arriving in California in time to train on Tuesday, but the Eagles will have to deal with Stanford’s avid fans and shut down a team that placed seven players on the All-Pac 10 Team.

Christen Press has scored three of the team’s five goals in the NCAA tournament thus far, but it is a collection of players – one that literally resembles something of a college all-star team – that has gotten the Cardinal to this point.

Now, Stanford is just three wins from what seems like destiny to the on-looking neutral.  A win sends the Cardinal to the College Cup in College Station, Texas and a heavyweight match-up with either Portland or in-state and Pac-10 rival UCLA.

An unbeaten record is something that Ratcliffe and his players are trying not to think about.  As he points out, every team has to be perfect in the postseason in order to win a title.  And when it comes to winning a national championship, sometimes it just takes some luck.

“It’s just going to take confidence,” Ratcliffe said.  “[We need to] play very well and get a little luck and prove that we deserve to win a national championship.”

Interesting Notes on Stanford:  Shira Averbuch, sister of Sky Blue FC and U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Yael Averbuch, plays for the Cardinal.  After playing in 18 games last year, Shira has only seen action in seven games as a sophomore this season, but will look to claim a national title just as her sister did twice at North Carolina.

O’Hara is having a MAC Hermann Trophy worthy season in 2009, with 23 goals and 13 assists (59 pts.) .  Her partnership up top with Press is absolutely lethal.  Press has added 19 goals and 13 assists (51 pts.).

Prediction: Stanford 1-0 BC

In other match-ups:

North Carolina hosts Wake Forest: UNC may have only beaten Maryland 1-0 on Saturday, but the Tar Heels put in a much more dominating performance than the score suggests.  Meanwhile, in-state rival Wake Forest is the wild-card of the Elite 8, which features six traditional women’s soccer powers.  Prediction:  UNC 3-1 Wake Forest

Florida State hosts Notre Dame:  Florida State showed some of its weaknesses in a rough 3-0 loss to North Carolina in the ACC Championship three weeks ago.  Notre Dame showed that it is a team on a mission after its 6-1 romping of Central Michigan in the second round, meaning it may be the end of the road for FSU.  Prediction: Notre Dame 3-2 FSU

UCLA hosts Portland: This is the most intriguing match of the weekend.  Portland has been getting good results and seems to be moving through the tournament relatively quietly, while UCLA has been hammering its opponents.  Syndey Leroux is the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals in just three games, but can she keep her form?  Prediction: Portland 2-1 UCLA

Check out the Stanford game on live webcast at 10 p.m. ET on Friday.

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