STANFORD — If anyone penciled the back-to-back NCAA men's soccer champion for a return trip to the College Cup, it sure wasn't the man in charge.
Was it possible? Sure.
Was it likely? That depends on who you ask.
"We always knew that we're capable of doing this, but obviously there's a lot of pitfalls in the way as you try to get there," Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. "You always really appreciate how fragile, especially the sport of soccer, it can be. And so for us to be still standing is quite incredible by the players. But, remember, I don't look at it as trying to go to a third one, because that sounds more difficult."
Only one coach in NCAA Division I history managed the elusive three-peat -- Bruce Arena (Virginia, 1991-94) -- with many others denied a third title in a row.
Ninth-seeded Stanford (17-2-2) might join the exclusive club this weekend in Philadelphia, but first it must get past No. 5 Akron (18-3-2), the 2010 NCAA champion, in Friday's semifinal, which will air live on ESPN at 3 p.m. PT.
"Our goal at the start of every year is just play as many games as possible, so we've kind of had those expectations for ourselves to get back to the Final Four each year," Stanford center mid Drew Skundrich said. "And it's just become reality the past three years."
"It's crazy," said Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce, who provided the game-winner with a header on Saturday to knock out top-seeded Wake Forest on the road in the quarterfinals, 2-0. "I still don't think the feeling has really hit us. I think when you're in the midst of the season you kind of go from game to game. And just kind of taking a step back and realizing where we are and how many games we have left to achieve that goal is really exciting."
Not too long ago the likelihood of Stanford reaching such heights seemed like a pipedream, considering the Cardinal ended a 13-year drought by advancing to the College Cup in 2015.
"I've always promised to everybody that we're going to work as hard as we can to become as good as we can," said Gunn, in his sixth season at the helm. "You can never guarantee results."
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Tangible evidence of Stanford's ascent includes four consecutive Pac-12 championships for a senior class anchored by its co-captains, Skundrich and Hilliard-Arce, along with forward Foster Langsdorf, the conference's all-time scoring leader with 36 goals.
"We had absolutely no idea how everything would go, but we always had high hopes and were very competitive people," said Skundrich, a two-year captain who made the transition from right back to center mid in the winter of his sophomore year. "So it just brought out the best in us being able to train with some of the best players in the nation every day. That just propelled us to be successful."
Three other seniors are fixtures in the starting lineup: forward Corey Baird, right wing Bryce Marion and goalkeeper Nico Corti.
"They all bring their own natural attributes," Gunn said. "Bryce has grown incredibly as a player. Tomas is an unbelievable competitor. Foster has the most unreal work rate you could ever imagine. I think Corey kind of adds the swagger to the group. Drew is an unbelievably dependable man that has the most incredible mindset and the most incredible attitude. He really epitomizes who the Stanford player should be. And then Nico is somebody that just showed an incredible team-first attitude from Day 1."
Stanford avoided numerous pitfalls to get here, including a penalty kick shootout in the second round after a scoreless draw.
That's one of 10 consecutive shutouts in the postseason for the Cardinal, which is a NCAA record.
Not allowing goals has turned into a trademark for the back-to-back NCAA champion.
"We just kind of fine tune everything week by week to just keep improving steadily throughout," Skundrich said. "Once we get in a groove, it usually is around this time period, towards the end of the season, where we start jelling as a team the best."
Stanford is the lowest seed at the College Cup, since the other semifinal features two other recent champions.
No. 3 North Carolina (17-3-1) claimed the trophy in 2011, while the next year it belonged to No. 2 Indiana (17-0-6), which can become the first unbeaten champion since Santa Clara in 1989.
But neither is attempting a three-peat, which would make additional history on The Farm after the events that transcended on Sunday in Orlando, Florida, in the Women's College Cup.
A 67th minute goal by Stanford midfielder Jaye Boissiere proved to be the difference in a 3-2 victory over UCLA in the championship game.
The Cardinal can become the first school to ever hold both the men's and women's titles in the same season -- a feat that could be more than just mere coincidence.
"I don't think it's random at Stanford," Gunn said. "And I do think that we say all along that culture continually develops and creates even stronger culture. When you put people in the right environment with the right parameters it will constantly breed stronger and stronger ethics and stronger and stronger values."
"I think it creates such a competitive environment just because you see great programs like the women's team win it and you kind of want to be just like them -- you don't want to get left behind," Hilliard-Arce said. "So I think not only them, but other programs such as women's tennis, the football team, women's water polo, they just create such a high standard and it creates that high bar that makes everyone try to achieve great things like them."
This article is written by Vytas Mazeika from Palo Alto Daily News, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.