Defending champion Stanford has 45-game unbeaten streak

With a 45-match unbeaten streak, it would be easy to assume that defending national champion Stanford hasn’t faced too many challenges.

But the Cardinal women have thrived despite injuries this season that might have derailed other teams.

Defender Tierna Davidson fractured her left ankle early in the season and freshman forward Sophia Smith broke her right leg in a scary collision against Utah in October. Both players are considered among the best in the nation and have been called up to the U.S. national team.

Stanford’s depth prevailed and the team went on to win its fourth straight conference championship before making the College Cup field for the eighth time in the last 11 years. The team’s unbeaten streak is the longest since North Carolina went 70 games without a loss from 1996 to 1998.

“It’s something that I marvel at all the time with all my teams at Stanford, is that when we lose top players, the level of play almost goes up, which doesn’t make sense to me, because obviously losing Tierna was huge for our team because she’s a team leader and one of our top players,” coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “But I think they care about each other so much that they don’t want to let that player down. They see Tierna supporting the team so much that they rally, and everyone steps up to an even higher level. I’ve seen that this year. We lost Sophia Smith as well, and after we lost her the team won 7-0 in the very next game.”

On Friday, the Cardinal (21-0-2) play Florida State (18-4-3) in the College Cup semifinals in Cary, North Carolina. North Carolina (20-3-2) plays Georgetown (21-0-3) in the other semi. All four teams were the top seeds in their brackets, and Stanford was the No. 1 overall seed for the third straight year.

Ratcliffe, who has been coach of the Cardinal since 2003, said it’s hard to say whether the team is pressured or challenged by the unbeaten streak. Stanford has outscored its opponents 141-16 over the span of the streak.

“I try to make sure that the team is playing and growing for each and every game, that they’re preparing for the next game,” he said. “We don’t talk about the streaks or anything like that, or the games in the future. It’s more game to game and putting on our best performance.”

The Cardinal lead the nation in shots per game (22.74) and goals (61). Sophomore Catarina Macario has 14 goals and eight assists and was named the Pac-12’s forward of the year for the second straight season. Teammate Jordan DiBiasi was named the league’s midfielder of the year and Alana Cook was named defensive player of the year. Ratcliffe earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors.

They’ll be challenged by a Florida State team making its 10th overall trip to the College Cup but first since 2015. The Seminoles, who won the national title in 2014, are led by Deyna Castellanos, who has 10 goals and six assists.

In the other semifinal, undefeated Georgetown is making its second trip to the College Cup in the past three years — in 2016 the Hoyas fell to eventual champion USC in the semis. Caitlin Farrell, the Big East offensive player of the year, has 18 goals this season to tie a program record.

North Carolina has won 21 NCAA titles, but hasn’t won one since 2012. Freshman sensation Brianna Pinto has six goals and eight assists for the Tar Heels, who lost to Florida 3-2 in the ACC title game.

Ratcliffe said he’s unsure if there’s one word that characterizes his team.

“My hope is that it’s determination, (that) would be the thing that I want.” He said. “They’ve shown great resiliency this year. Their determination is always strong, and I think just love for each other is a big one, too. They really love each other as a group and want to do the best they can.”