The 2011 College Cup, for many, will be a weekend filled with firsts. The women’s soccer N.C.A.A. semifinal games take place Friday evening at the Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga. — and though the field is filled with the traditionally successful soccer programs, none of the four remaining teams has yet won a national championship.
The weekend’s first matchup features two experienced sides that have both endured more than their fair share of heartbreak on college soccer’s grandest stage. Florida State and Stanford both have impressive records in the N.C.A.A. tournament in years past, with nine trips to the College Cup between the two programs, but each has a losing record overall. The Seminoles’ last appearance was in 2007, when Florida State made it to the final but fell 2-0 to Southern California. Stanford, meanwhile, is playing in its fourth consecutive College Cup, but lost in each of the last two national championship games.
Florida State’s hallmark for years has been its team speed and athleticism, and the 2011 edition of Coach Mark Krikorian’s squad is no different. Stanford’s defense will be tested by standout striker Tiffany McCarty, the A.C.C.Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 who missed the entirety of the 2010 season to a knee injury, and senior midfielder Janice Cayman. The pair has combined to score 25 of Florida State’s 55 goals this year, and McCarty ranks second in the A.C.C. in points (42), goals (18) and goals per game (.72).
Florida State enters Friday’s game playing its best stretch of soccer all season long. After a midseason lull that saw the Seminoles succumb to the rigors of the A.C.C. — college soccer’s most competitive conference with seven nationally ranked teams — Florida State has reeled off nine wins in its last 10 games, including a victory in the A.C.C. tournament final over Wake Forest.
Stanford comes to Kennesaw as the nation’s lone undefeated team, with a scoreless draw in an away game against Maryland in August as the only blemish on what has thus far been a storybook season. The Cardinal feature two of the nation’s best players in striker Lindsey Taylor and midfielder Teresa Noyola, and are anchored by an excellent defense that has allowed just nine goals all season.
None of this is new to Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe, who has guided the Cardinal to a .742 winning percentage over the course of his nine seasons in Palo Alto. His players have garnered nearly every award available to them — this season the Cardinal had eight players selected to the All-Pac-12 first team — but Ratcliffe’s program has yet to end the season with a victory. Stanford may suffer from playing a softer schedule than any of the other three semifinalists, an unfortunate consequence of playing in the Pac-12. Regardless, Stanford plays this weekend as the favorite to win and the Cardinal will be expected to win the program’s first national championship.
If Stanford and Florida State represent the nation’s old guard, Wake Forest and Duke are the young guns. Likely the A.C.C.’s two strongest teams this season, the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons are loaded with young, albeit inexperienced, talent.
Wake Forest will meet Duke for the third time this season Friday, having split the two previous matchups. In October, the Blue Devils visited Winston-Salem and dismantled the Demon Deacons, who played without star forward Katie Stengel, who was out due to injury. Two weeks later in the A.C.C. tournament semifinal, a full-strength Wake Forest squad exacted revenge on Duke, going up two goals and holding off a furious charge by the Blue Devils for a 2-1 win.
Wake Forest Coach Tony da Luz described that victory as a “Final Four-type of game,” and he’ll be hoping that his team can replicate the performance Friday, when the stakes are much higher. The Demon Deacons rely on what may be the best attacking duo left in the N.C.A.A. tournament in sophomores Katie Stengel and Rachel Nuzzolese, who have scored 19 and 11 goals this season, respectively.
Duke has enjoyed a dominant year in the A.C.C., cruising to the regular season title behind a stifling defense and multifaceted attack. The Blue Devils possess the best offense of any team remaining, and scored more goals than any other team in the N.C.A.A. tournament (10), except for Oklahoma State.
Duke is led by freshman Kelly Cobb, a sensational center forward who commands double marking by opposing defenses. Though Cobb has only managed to score once in the tournament, her presence on the field allocates space for the rest of Duke’s attackers, and attacking midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr has flourished as a result, scoring five goals in the last four games.
With a team featuring a heavy mix of juniors and sophomores, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Blue Devils will be to play confident and focused soccer from the opening whistle Friday. Against quarterfinal opponent Long Beach State, Duke played an uncharacteristically nervous brand of soccer for the opening 45 minutes before establishing its dominance over the Panthers in the second half. That was with a College Cup spot on the line, but the pressure will be even greater in Kennesaw, and the Blue Devils cannot afford to start slowly against the opportunistic Demon Deacons.