Tar Heel women to battle past, Stanford in Final Four tonight
North Carolina has the nation’s most storied program in women’s soccer — and perhaps any other NCAA sport — with 20 national championships in the 30 years since the sport was sanctioned.
That’s enough to put doubt in the minds if not fear on the faces of most opponents. But it also brings with it pressure to live up to the past.
“These girls are playing with the pressure of an incredible tradition,” North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said at a news conference here Thursday. “I never want them to feel like they’ve got to defend our tradition. I don’t want them to play with that kind of stress.”
The Women’s College Cup being hosted by the University of San Diego matches Penn State (20-3-2) against Florida State (20-3) in the opening game Friday at 8:30 p.m. EST, followed by the Tar Heels (13-5-3) against Stanford (21-1-1) at 11 p.m. EST.
Stanford is one team that has no doubts about its ability to compete at the highest level, but the Cardinal may be starting to feel the pressure of success, bidding for a fourth straight appearance in the finals. Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe wants that all cleared from his players’ minds.
“It’s a new team, a new year,” said Ratcliffe. “I don’t really consider us defending our national championship. We’re here to try to win a national championship. This is a new squad.”
For all of Stanford’s success the past four years, somewhere in the back of the Cardinal players’ minds this thought must reside: They have never beaten North Carolina. Dorrance downplayed any psychological advantage for the Tar Heels, however.
“The streaks are in reality irrelevant,” said Dorrance. “What it comes down to is who’s going to be playing with confidence that day, who’s going to be on their game, who’s going to make a difference.”
Said UNC senior midfielder Amber Brooks: “It’s always a tough game. They have established a great tradition. ... It’s going to be a battle. We always get people’s best game.”
Stanford is 0-8-3 against the Tar Heels. That includes a 2-2 tie in Chapel Hill in 2010. And a 1-0 loss in the 2009 finals.
“I’d love to be a part of the first Stanford team to beat North Carolina,” said Stanford senior midfielder Mariah Nogueira, one of four current Cardinal players who were on the field in the 2009 championship game. “They’re, obviously, a great program and I know a lot of their players. In the end, we’re coming out to play the best soccer we can and we try to focus on ourselves rather than our opponent.”
Moments after Stanford lost to North Carolina in the 2009 finals, Ratcliffe was asked what the program would take away from the experience.
“More hunger, that we can accomplish our goal of winning a national title,” he said.
That goal was finally realized last year when Stanford defeated Duke 1-0 for its first national championship.
Now the Cardinal is out to do what no school other than North Carolina has ever done — win back-to-back titles.
Dorrance put it into perspective for both teams, with an abbreviated pregame speech, as it were: “Your ability to play effectively in the final four and against any team is the self confidence of those you have recruited and coached. The self belief. ... All of you have a special quality. That’s why I recruited you. In this match, express it.”