It has been a while since the No. 17-ranked Stanford women's soccer team has been in the underdog role so early in the NCAA tournament. But, that's exactly where the Cardinal finds itself heading into Friday's second-round match (5 p.m.) against South Carolina at UCLA.
The Bruins and Kentucky meet in a later match, with the winners playing in Sunday's Sweet Sixteen at 4 p.m.
The Cardinal (14-5-1) beat visiting Cal State Fullerton, 1-0, in the first round last Friday night, out-shooting the Titans, 21-6. The Gamecocks (17-3-2) knocked off Furman, 5-0. Taylor Uhl scored the lone goal.
"It shows they had a great year and they know how to finish," Stanford junior midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta said. "We have to bring our 'A' game. At practice, we keep getting better. We're still improving."
Stanford, which has reached each of the past five Final Fours, winning the national title in 2011, has had to incorporate eight freshmen and overcome the loss of senior goalie Emily Oliver, one of the top goalkeepers in Cardinal history, to early medical retirement a few weeks into the season.
"We clicked in the first week of practice," LaBonta said. It took longer on the field to click. A lot of people bring different things to the team."
Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe tinkered with his lineup nearly every game, and even showed a different lineup against the Titans.
"It's an inexperienced group but I told them their freshmen season is over," Ratycliffe said. "This is a new season. We want to play well, put our best foot forward, and compete."
Freshmen Maddie Bauer and Stephanie Amack were key for Stanford against Cal State Fullerton. The defenders not only helped keep the ball out of the net, defended by freshman Jane Campbell, but also started many of the attacks that led to scoring opportunities.
"Maddie is having an incredible season," Ratcliffe said. "She's a leader as a freshman and plays nearly 90 minutes every game."
Senior Natalie Griffen and sophomore Laura Liedle are also important on the back end for the Cardinal.
Griffen and fellow seniors Courtney Verloo, Sydney Payne, Oliver, Shelby Payne and Taylor McCann have been part of a great tradition at Stanford.
"They have been amazing for the program," Ratcliffe said. "It's one of the most successful classes ever and it would be great if we found a way to end end their careers on a high note."