Dec. 3, 2009

By Jim McCurdy
Special to

Familiarity breeds contentment.

That’s the theme surrounding this year’s NCAA Women’s Soccer National Championships. Familiar foes give this year’s installment of the College Cup a seven-degrees-of-separation feel.

Or, in this case, maybe two or three degrees.

No. 1 Stanford (24-0) meets Pac 10 rival and No. 3 UCLA (21-2-1) in Friday’s 4:30 p.m. (CT) semifinal at Texas A&M’s Aggie Stadium in College Station. No. 4 North Carolina (21-3-1) finds itself in yet another match-up with No. 5 Notre Dame (21-3-1) at 7 p.m.

The national championship kicks off at noon Sunday.

“I think the four teams that are there are all exceptional teams,” Tar Heels coach Anson Dorrance said. “Any team can win it. Stanford should be favored. They’ve really got strength all over the field.”

This coming from a program that’s won 19 national titles, while Stanford has never competed in the championship game.

Notre Dame, winners of two titles, lost to North Carolina, 6-0, earlier this year at home. The Irish also lost to Stanford, 2-0, in Santa Clara, Calif., on the second weekend in September. Notre Dame has put together a 19-game unbeaten streak since then, which includes 13 consecutive wins.

Following the trip back from California during which the Irish went 3-3, something changed.

“A lot came together for us,” Notre Dame assistant coach Ken Nuber said. “When we got back from there, we have taken a workman-like attitude.”

Notre Dame, nicked up by injuries all season but steadied by Garland, Texas native Melissa Henderson’s 18 goals and goalkeeper Nikki Weiss’ 14-1-1 record, 0.47 goals against average and seven shutouts, has memories it would rather forget against the Tar Heels. North Carolina has won 11 of the 17 meetings between the two schools, including a 2-1 decision in last year’s championship.

“I think they’re very eager for it,” Nuber said. “This team has done a great job not looking ahead all year. A lot of times, I think a little bit, you could say a team looks ahead. This team hasn’t at all.”

What’s ahead now are the eternally-here-on-the-big-stage Tar Heels.  

North Carolina, the defending champs, and Notre Dame have met in the national tournament four straight years. What’s different about this time, you ask? Well, it’s the first time the two teams have met in the semifinals.

As if that matters.

“They want a second shot at them,” Nuber said, alluding to the Irish’s blowout loss to the Tar Heels on home turf at the beginning of the season. “I think they really want to prove that’s not how we play.

“It’s a great reward for them to get back to a fourth consecutive Final Four. Now they want to finish the deal, and bring a trophy home.”

The Tar Heels are led by Casey Nogueira (12 goals), Jessica McDonald (8) and keeper Ashlyn Harris’ 19-3-1 record, 0.45 GAA and 10 shutouts. Throw in all those national titles and the Tar Heels have been the premier women’s soccer program in the history of the game.

“The way we’ve always looked at the Final Four is we’re just excited to get there,” said Dorrance, whose program is the only one in the country to play in all 28 national tournaments. “Obviously, we want to win it. We’re just actually thrilled to be there.”

North Carolina has beaten Notre Dame in six of the eight national tournament matches.

“I think it’s a great rivalry,” Dorrance said. “The other program brings out the best in each other.”

UCLA has been there before. In fact, this marks the seventh straight trip to the College Cup for the Bruins, which lost to Notre Dame in the 2004 championship game on penalty kicks. The Bruins lost to Stanford, 2-0, Oct. 18 in Palo Alto. UCLA’s only other loss is a 7-2 drubbing to open the season at North Carolina.

Both UCLA and North Carolina are riding nine-game win streaks.

“Even a month ago, we weren’t as good as we are now,” Bruins coach Jillian Ellis said. “As we’ve come through the season, our freshmen have matured. Our younger players give us quite a little more depth than we’ve had in the past.”

Lauren Cheney (16 goals) and Sydney Leroux (23) lead the Bruins on the offensive side of things. Lerough, a sophomore from Vancouver, did not play in last year’s Cup, instead electing to help the United States win a title at the Under-20 FIFA World Championships in Chile. The Bruins know the challenge that lies ahead and they also know Stanford understands that as well.

“Both teams recognize they stand in each other’s way from competing for a national championship,” said Ellis, who came to the U.S. at age 15 from Portsmouth, England. “I think if we were playing on the top of a mountain, they’d be excited.”

Stanford longs to stand atop the mountain, maybe more than any of the three teams, considering it has never been to the title match; not even when Julie Foudy roamed the campus in Palo Alto until 1992.

The Cardinal have shared the nation’s top billing with only preseason favorite North Carolina all year. Hermann Trophy candidate Kelley O’Hara, whose 25 goals is tied for the national lead and 63 points are tops in the country, is joined by Christen Press (20 goals) as Stanford’s best scoring threats. Stanford knows what awaits when it lines up with UCLA again just 47 days since their last meeting.

“There’s a lot on the line, and everyone is looking forward to this game,” Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “For us, it’s not always about just wins; it’s about putting on a good show. This year has been really special. Last year we were disappointed losing in the Final Four. This year we want to take a step further and win it.”