SANTA CLARA, Calif. - To be the best, you have to beat the best is a motto No. 17 Santa Clara women's soccer is taking to heart to open the 2012 season. The Broncos travel to Stanford to take on the defending national champion and current top-ranked Cardinal in a battle of top-20 teams. The Cardinal have been to the College Cup final each of the last three years, capturing their first-ever title in 2012.
The game will take place at 7 p.m. at Stanford and will be the very first live broadcast on the new Pac-12 Network.
"Playing Stanford to open the season provides a wonderful opportunity for us," said Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith, entering his 26th season at the helm for the Broncos. "We have five core values in our program and one of them is 'embrace the opportunity for growth and success.' We are absolutely embracing this opportunity as it is a chance to play the No. 1 team in the country and defending national champions. We have several wins against the defending national champions in our history and this gives us another opportunity to add to that."
In 2011 Stanford handed Santa Clara one of its two loses in a 2-0 victory at Buck Shaw in the home opener for the Broncos. Stanford topped Santa Clara by the same score in 2010 and knocked the Broncos out of the tournament in both 2009 and '10 by one goal margins. Each of the last two years, however, Santa Clara has taken down Stanford during back-to-back undefeated spring seasons. The last Bronco win in the regular season was a 2-0 win in 2006.
"We've developed a wonderful rivalry with Stanford as the schools are 15 miles apart," added Smith. "We've gone through long stretches where they've had trouble beating us and we're going through a few years of not being able to beat them in the fall. We've beaten them in spring but I think we'd all agree the approach in spring is different from the fall. The rivalry has clearly heated up again so that adds to the emotion and excitement of the game on Friday."
Santa Clara will be without the services of its top two scorers from 2011 as they will be participating in the U20 World Cup in Japan. First-Team All-American and First-Team All-WCC junior Julie Johnston and First-Team All-WCC sophomore Sofia Huerta will return prior to conference play. Johnston, captain of the U.S. squad, led the team with nine goals and 22 points while Huerta, playing for Mexico, scored eight goal and added two assists for 18 points.
"There are going to be times, whether due to injury or whatever, you're going to be without a key player or two," said Smith. "We can't replace them but it gives the other players opportunities to step up in different ways. Julie is a fantastic leader but I'm sure our other team captains will take up that leadership challenge. We do have a lot of attacking players that can step-up to fill a goal-scoring role while Julie and Sofia are gone."
Even without its leading scorers the Broncos still have quite a roster. In addition to Johnston and Huerta, senior captain Meleana Shim and junior Ellie Rice were named to the preseason All-WCC team for a Santa Clara team picked to win the conference.
"We're absolutely honored that our fellow WCC coaches have picked us to win the conference," continued Smith. "That being said, it's one thing to be picked and it's another thing to win it. We have a lot of work in front of us to have that come to fruition. We've been rebuilding the standards here that had us with the second-most Final Four appearances in the country but it's been a while now. You have to have some standards in place for that to come back like work ethic and commitment to improving. This last spring we did a good job of achieving one of our goals of scoring two or more times per game so we'll raise the bar even higher this fall."
Santa Clara has won nine WCC titles, appeared in 23 NCAA Tournaments and made the College Cup Final Four 10 times.