North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance is the architect of one of the most dominant programs in NCAA history and has faced some of the top soccer players in the world.
And even he’s a little worried about meeting unbeaten Stanford in the Women’s College Cup final.
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“Their whole front line is terrifying,” Dorrance said. “They have extraordinary attacking at every position. Stanford is an extraordinary team from top to bottom. They are a matchup nightmare, not just for us. They have proven it all year.”
The defending champion Tar Heels (22-3-1) will go for the program’s 21st national title Sunday against the Cardinal (25-0), who are loaded with skill, speed and experience.
Forwards Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press scored in Stanford’s 2-1 win over UCLA in Friday’s semifinal and are the nation’s highest-scoring tandem, with 47 goals and 29 assists this season. The Cardinal have scored 80 goals this season, second in the nation to Portland (83).
Stanford’s players say they’re focused on completing a mission that began with a 1-0 loss to Notre Dame in last year’s semifinals.
“That definitely stays with us,” said Press, who has 21 goals this season. “It was a sour taste after last season and it definitely motivates me, especially in games like this, that are always going to be close. It just takes that last bit of extra effort.”
Press propelled Stanford to its first championship game with her goal four minutes into overtime against UCLA. Dorrance was watching, and sensed before the extra period began that the Cardinal would emerge.
“Stanford came out of their huddle so quickly, it was like they wanted to get the game going immediately,” Dorrance said Saturday. “When your team has that sort of aggression, that shows a tremendous confidence – ‘Let’s start now, let’s end this.’ You could tell they were really aggressive coming out and that speaks very positively for their mentality.”
North Carolina also brings plenty of talent into the title game and a sparkling resume, too. The Tar Heels are 42-5 at the College Cup, are playing in the final for the 23rd time and have more championships since 1999 (five) than any other team has overall.
The current players try not to think about the program’s history, but focus more on the camaraderie with their teammates and simply extending their season as long as they can.
“It is, in a way, a lot of pressure, just knowing the tradition that Carolina has,” senior defender Kristi Eveland said. “That’s always going to be a pressure, that’s always going to be in the back of your mind. Trying to put the emphasis on other things and on this particular team kind of makes it a little easier.”
The Tar Heels have a chance to spoil history as much as make more of their own on Sunday.
Stanford is one win away from becoming the first team other than North Carolina to march through a championship season without a loss or a tie. The Tar Heels had a perfect record between 1991-93 and went 27-0 on their way to the 2003 championship.
“The pressure that an undefeated team always has is the desire to cement the legacy,” Dorrance said. “You want that team to win in the worst way for that reason. There is additional pressure on you for that reason, and there are a thousand different ways to lose.
“It is stressful,” he said. “But then, if that team is successful, the satisfaction and relief is overwhelming.”
Casey Nogueira scored in North Carolina’s 1-0 win over Notre Dame on Friday. The senior has seven goals in the postseason and will be one of the main targets for Stanford’s defense, which allowed only 14 goals this season.
Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe is less concerned about the matchups than with his own team setting the pace and controlling possession.
“We just have to break the pressure, play good soccer and keep the ball, and make it our game,” he said. “Hopefully, our style will win out in the end.”
The teams braved unseasonably cold weather on Friday night, with the temperature in the mid-30s. Rain was in Sunday’s forecast, though the high temperature was forecast in the low 50s.