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2011 NCAA Women’s College Cup: The Final Four

soccer ballThe NCAA Women’s College Cup, taking place this weekend at Kennesaw State Stadium will be the first NCAA soccer championship held in Georgia since 1968. And one thing is for certain  – there will be a first-time national champion crowned at this year’s NCAA final.

All four College Cup teams were seeded first in their respective brackets, and include three ACC schools—Wake Forest, Duke and Florida State—and two-time NCAA runner-up Stanford, making its fourth consecutive College Cup appearance.

Defending national champ Notre Dame and perennial powerhouses UNC, UCLA and Portland are nowhere in sight, opening the door for unbeaten and top-ranked Stanford to finally carry off the trophy. I can’t even remember a time when the University of North Carolina wasn’t a contender.  With 20 NCAA championships and 25 College Cup appearances (and alum like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow, Heather O’Reilly)  much of the history of women’s college soccer comes from Chapel Hill.

In fact, this is the first time since the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1982,  that all four semifinalists are seeking their first NCAA title

Friday, Dec. 2, the first semifinal match pits Stanford (23-0-1) against Florida State.  The 18-6-1 Seminoles are ACC champions, making their fifth Final Four appearance. If FSU-Stanford sounds like a familiar NCAA matchup, it is.  A year ago, Stanford demolished the Seminoles 5-0 in the NCAA Elite Eight.  This year the match features two of the country’s best programs to never have won a national championship. Friday’s semifinal will air live on ESPNU and ESPN3.com beginning at 5:00 p.m. EST.

The other half of the Final Four pits the third-ranked Duke (21-3-1) against its ACC rival,  Wake Forest.  This is Duke’s third Final Four appearance, but first since 1992 when they defeated Hartford  in the semifinals and then fell to North Carolina.  The Blue Devils are riding their best season ever with wins over Notre Dame and FSU, as their only losses were to Wake, UNC and Auburn.

#7 Wake is making its College Cup debut.  The Demon Deacons, 18-3-4, split their two ACC matches against Duke this fall, with Duke prevailing 2-0 in October and Wake winning 2-1 in the ACC tournament. This will be the first time the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons will go up against each other in the NCAA Tournament.

Both Duke and Wake beat FSU in the regular season, but FSU avenged its loss by winning the ACC title over Wake on penalty kicks.

4th Time a Charm for Stanford?

If this is indeed Stanford’s year (and I hope it is for a host of reasons), the championship will build on the rich soccer tradition on The Farm.  Olympian and 1999 World Cup champion Julie Foudy starred for Stanford in the early ’90s. By the late ’90s, Stanford became a consistent Top 20 program, winning the Pac-10 in 1999 and 2002, with a 65-17-4 record from 1999-2002, and a No. 1 ranking and Elite Eight appearance in 2002.

That impressive run has been far surpassed by Coach Paul Ratcliffe’s recent powerhouse teams. Led by the current group of seniors, beginning in 2008, Stanford has compiled a remarkable 93-4-4 record, including an unbeatable 53-0-1 at its home field, Cagan Stadium.

Three Cardinal alums, Kelley O’Hara, Rachael Buehler and Nicole Barnhart, were on the USA team that enthralled the soccer universe during last summer’s World Cup in Germany and Ali Riley played for New Zealand’s national team. .

A national championship however,  has thus far eluded Stanford.  In both 2009 and 2010, the Cardinal was undefeated until the very last match of the season.  In December 2009, Stanford fell in the national championship match to UNC, 1-0. Last year’s final was the same 1-0 score, a loss to Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.

The 2011 Cardinal averaged over 22 shots on goal per game and nearly three goals per game.  Their fast-paced possession style of play is led by four seniors— the always fun to watch forward Lindsay Taylor (20 goals), midfielders Kristy Zurmuhlen (five goals, four assists) and Teresa Noyola (eight goals, 14 assists), who played for Mexico in the World Cup, as well as Camille Levin (four goals, six assists), who played every position other than goal and can defend, pass or score with equal proficiency.

There’s more than just seniors though.  Frosh forward Chioma Ubogagu (exciting player and great name) added nine goals and nine assists.  Juniors Mariah Nogueira, Alina Garciamendez (another Mexico World Cup team member) and Rachel Quon excel in midfield and in defense, and sophomore GK Emily Oliver has been reliable in goal, although infrequently tested as Stanford has controlled time of possession in every one of its games.

Stanford enters the College Cup winners of 21 straight matches. The only blemish on their schedule this year came in the third game of the season as Maryland and Stanford played to a scoreless draw in College Park.

So, will the fourth trip to the College Cup be the charm for the Cardinal?

Perhaps.  But in soccer,  the team that controls the flow of the game, dominates possession and outshoots its opponent may still come up on the short.

Stanford, which has vastly more recent Final Four experience than FSU, Duke and Wake, creates scoring opportunities as well as any of the other three College Cup participants.  If the Cardinal can convert just a few of those shots into goals, they have a great chance of returning from Georgia as NCAA champions.

Kennesaw State’s year-old soccer stadium is a 8,300-seat facility built specifically for soccer. About 7,000 visitors, among them the participating Duke, Florida State, Stanford and Wake Forest teams, are expected to come through Cobb County for Friday’s and Sunday’s matches. Tickets are nearly sold out and the Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates an economic impact of $2.6 million on the local economy. The championship game will be played on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 1:00 p.m. EST and for those not lucky enough to be in the stadium, the game will be broadcast live on ESPNU and ESPN3.

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