Stanford Starts Chase For National Title

By Ryan Reiswig

The long offseason wait for Stanford soccer fans is coming to a close as the talent-laden 2011 version of the Stanford women's soccer team embarks on its latest quest for the program's first national championship.

Stanford, ranked No. 2 in the nation, opens the season with its first big test, hosting perennial power Penn State at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium Friday evening.

"I think the team is very excited to play," said head coach Paul Ratcliffe, who enters his ninth year leading the Cardinal. "We've been training against each other for a few weeks now. We can't wait to apply the things we've been learning and working on into the game and play against a strong opponent."

Playing strong opponents is something Stanford is no stranger to. Last year the Cardinal opened its season on the East Coast against Boston College and then traveled down the Atlantic to face the Tarheels of North Carolina.

"My team expects to play the best opponents," Ratcliffe said. "We always want to be challenged so that it can prepare ourselves for the rigor of the Pac-12. It's pretty common that we play a pretty strong schedule. It helps harden the team and make them stronger for the future."

Like last year's grueling schedule, this year is no different.

Two days after the opener, Stanford will host a tough Pacific team, followed by another cross-country trip to face No. 6 Maryland and No. 23 Georgetown. Once done on the East Coast, they return home to face Northwestern and top-ranked Notre Dame, a rematch of last year's NCAA Championship match.

On top of the challenging non-conference games, Pac-12 play promises to be even more difficult. One-fifth of the current top 25 coaches poll belongs to the Pac-12, making it one of the toughest conferences in the nation.

While some may look at the schedule as daunting, Stanford looks at it as an opportunity to measure itself and improve before the postseason begins. This includes the constant evaluation made by coaches.

"You're learning your team chemistry, your midfield chemistry, and you're looking at your backline and how strong it'll be against the best forwards in the country," said Ratcliffe, a UCLA alum. "It's great to get tested early and see who could do it and who can't do it, and what changes and adjustments you need to make for the middle and later part of the season."

One obvious thing about Ratcliffe's team is that it's stocked with talent. Teresa Noyola and Alina Garciamendez, two of four team captains this year, played for the Mexican women's national team in this summer's World Cup; and many other players are poised and talented enough to do the same. Among the others are Mariah Nogueira, Camille Levin and Lindsay Taylor, the latter two being the remaining team captains.

Although some of this team's stars may shine brighter than others, they all form a constellation, and Ratcliffe wants it that way. Everyone on the team is important and vital, from the starters to the bench players.

"I'm more of a team-oriented coach, so I think it's going to take everybody," Ratcliffe said. "I need every player to step up in the game; I don't think you can have any passengers. Everyone has got to be a leader and a difference maker if we want to have success."

Stanford has certainly enjoyed success on the pitch, winning two straight Pac-12 championships and advancing to the NCAA Championship round in back-to-back seasons. They have also established a strong bond with the rising Stanford football team, even playing pick-up games in the spring with a collection of football players, including Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck.

"There's a standard of excellence at Stanford and we're very proud of the football team. What they achieved last year was tremendous," Ratcliffe said. "I think they're coming out to our first game against Penn State to watch our team. They're big fans of ours and we're big fans of theirs as well."

The bar is always high at Stanford, but the goals remain the same.

"Our team goal every year is to win the Pac-12 title and win the national championship," Ratcliffe said. "Those are always our big goals."

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