Burning questions for the bracket

Five questions to consider before we get on the road to Kennesaw State and the 2011 Women's College Cup.

1. Is this finally the year for Stanford?

Paying your dues is one thing. Stanford has forked over enough emotional capital to own the College Cup by now.

Three years ago, the Cardinal played arguably the best soccer of any team in Cary, N.C., but couldn't get a ball to go in the back of the net in a 1-0 semifinal loss against Notre Dame.

Two years ago they watched Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O'Hara's career end with a red card late in a 1-0 loss against North Carolina in College Station, Texas.

And just a year ago, back in Cary, the Cardinal again fell short in a Hermann winner's final game, sending out Christen Press with another bitter 1-0 loss to Notre Dame in the title game.

As Stanford enters this year's NCAA tournament as an undefeated No. 1 seed (19-0-1), joining Duke, Florida State and Wake Forest as the top seeds, don't imagine the seniors who experienced all of those setbacks will forget history.

They have no interest in being doomed to repeat it.

"We think about it a lot," senior midfielder Teresa Noyola said of the national championship. "I know when the seniors come together and talk about it, we think we should have had it. We think we should have won it already. We know we're good enough to. We want to do all we can to not let any opportunity slip by because I think now we also appreciate the level of our team, how good we are.

"We know that we're capable of it, and I think we're just more motivated than ever to make it happen this year. I think we can, as long as we learn from our mistakes last year and the year before and stay together as a team."

The cohesion is what transformed Stanford's biggest question mark into its greatest strength this season. Despite losing a Hermann Trophy winner after each of the past two seasons, the Cardinal remain among the game's most prolific offenses, averaging three goals per game with a possession-oriented style honed to perfection. Only Texas A&M scores more among teams in the NCAA tournament.

In O'Hara's final season, she and Press combined to score 59 percent of the team's goals. With O'Hara gone, Press accounted for 35 percent of the goals last season. This season, leading scorer Lindsay Taylor, a gifted finisher in her own right, nonetheless accounts for a more modest 28 percent of the total production. Six players have scored four or more goals.

More than ever before, the Cardinal have a lot of candidates to get that one missing goal.

2. Is this the year the SEC makes a statement?

The SEC has long been the sleeping giant in women's soccer, with only Florida's 1998 national championship to show for its forays onto the national stage. But it shows signs of stirring from its slumber this season.

An SEC-record eight teams made the field this year, including Alabama's first trip since 1998 and Kentucky's first appearance since 2006. The conference needs to get results in November -- 21 NCAA tournament bids in the past four seasons produced just four Sweet 16 appearances and no quarterfinals -- but developing the depth to play the kind of games in September and October that merit eight bids is part of that process.

There were only two major conferences in which teams seeded fifth or lower won the conference tournament. One was the ACC, long considered the deepest league in the country. The other was the SEC, in which eventual champion Auburn entered the conference tournament seeded just seventh and enters the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Auburn senior star Katy Frierson has seen the SEC landscape shift.

"I knew coming in to play in the SEC that it was a very physical league -- there are some great athletes in the SEC," Frierson said. "And I think that while the soccer hasn't always been there, I think the soccer is starting to develop so much more now. There are teams that actually knock the ball around, and there are a lot of technical players in the league now. I think that's making the quality of the teams so much better, combining the athleticism the league has always had with that soccer savviness."

Frierson was the lone SEC representative when she played for the United States under-23 national team in the Nordic Cup in 2008. That fall, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee all lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But with players such as South Carolina's Kayla Grimsley, Kentucky's Arin Gilliland, Florida's Kathryn Williamson and Frierson among those getting looks at various levels of the national program and eight teams ready to take the field in the NCAA tournament, the SEC's reputation is changing.

"One of the goals I had coming into Auburn was to do something special with the Auburn team that we'd never done, and luckily we were able to do that," Frierson said of earning the program's first SEC tournament championship with a 3-2 win against Florida. "But while that's the short-term goal, I think big term, we just want to continue to develop soccer and continue to make soccer more of a cultural thing within the South."

Nothing will speed it along like winning. And Auburn and the rest of the SEC may be ready to do some of that.

3. Could freshmen define the NCAA tournament?

People who are only now growing comfortable with the route from dorm to cafeteria might not seem like the ideal candidates to navigate a trip to the College Cup, but youth will be served in the NCAA tournament.

Mostly because when it gets service, youth has demonstrated it can put the ball in the back of the net.

The list begins with the teams at the top. Stanford's Chioma Ubogagu and Duke's Kelly Cobb emerged as immediate stars as their respective teams climbed to the top of the polls and RPI ratings during the regular season. Stanford's Taylor eventually pulled away for the team lead in goals, but Ubogagu is quick, creative and skilled on the ball. The rugged ACC season took a bit of a toll on Cobb, but nobody scored more goals for the Blue Devils than the imposing Alaskan, a target player who nevertheless operates with the ball at her feet like a smaller player.

It doesn't stop there. Consider these freshmen who could end up in Kennesaw.

Morgan Brian, Virginia: The ACC freshman of the year, Brian may be the piece No. 2 Virginia has been missing in turning consistent success over the past two decades into the program's first College Cup appearance since 1991. She's a smooth, savvy midfielder who can finish her own chances or set up Cavs' leading scorer Caroline Miller.

Kelley Monogue, Texas A&M: She wasn't just the leading scorer among Big 12 freshmen; she led all Big 12 players. And it wasn't close, with Monogue's 18 goals outpacing her closest competition, freshman teammate Annie Kunz, by five goals. With 31 goals between them, No. 3 Texas A&M's dynamic duo outscored three Big 12 teams.

Sam Mewis and Ally Courtnall, UCLA: It's not really fair to pick just two freshmen from No. 2 UCLA, let alone narrow it to one. First-year coach B.J. Snow reaped the benefits of the recruiting class he helped sign as an assistant under former coach Jill Ellis. Five and sometimes six freshmen start on a regular basis, but Mewis and Courtnall are the primary goal-scoring support for All-American Sydney Leroux.

4. What about three unseeded teams that could make some noise?

West Virginia: The Mountaineers were playing the best soccer in the Big East by the end of the season, and while that's not as impressive a feat as in some seasons, it counts for something. Coach Nikki Izzo-Brown's teams are always physically tough, and the trio of Blake Miller, Frances Silva and Kate Schwindel provide more goal production than this program has had since it made the Elite Eight in 2007.

Milwaukee: It's never a bad idea to pick the team with the best player, and there's a good case to be made that Milwaukee senior Sarah Hagen is the best in the nation. Hagen's 24 goals and eight assists put her atop the national scoring charts, but the Panthers aren't a one-woman show. With a core of experienced seniors and talented freshmen (there's that theme again), they play attractive soccer.

A first-round game at home against Illinois State is no lock, pitting national leader Hagen against Redbirds freshman Rachel Tejada, third in the nation in goals per game. But a potential second-round encounter in Los Angeles against surprisingly seeded Tennessee is a possible path to the Sweet 16.

Dayton: A first-round game against Louisville should be among the most competitive of the entire opening weekend, and the Flyers didn't catch a break in having to hit the road despite a top-30 RPI. But the Flyers have the experience in the back line to deal with Louisville star Christine Exeter. And led by Colleen Williams, who deserves at least a place in the Hermann debate, they have the depth to score on a team that was just 4-4-1 at home this season.

5. What about the old guard?

North Carolina, Notre Dame, Santa Clara, Portland and UCLA have combined for 63 College Cup appearances and 65 wins in the semifinals or finals.

The rest of the NCAA has combined for 51 College Cup appearances and 22 wins in the semifinals and finals.

The Tar Heels, Fighting Irish, Broncos, Pilots and Bruins really are the 1 percent (actually, the 1.55 percent based on current Division I programs), but could we see the first College Cup without any of them?

Portland opens at Oregon State, a team it beat in overtime in September, and could travel to face No. 1 Florida State in the second round in another rematch of a game it won earlier this season at home. For a team that's 3-4-0 on the road, it's a tall order. Notre Dame plays a first-round game on the road for the first time since 1993 when it travels to Illinois and could face Oklahoma State in the second round, a rematch of last season's quarterfinal in Stillwater.

Santa Clara is similarly unseeded, but at least it gets to open at home against California. The trouble is old nemesis Stanford blocks the path in the Sweet 16, should the Broncos get even that far.

That leaves No. 3 North Carolina and No. 2 UCLA to carry the banner. Of the two, the Tar Heels may like their draw more, although a change in tournament format means instead of playing a second-round game against Baylor at home and resting for a week before traveling to face Florida in the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels would likely face Baylor on a neutral field in Gainesville, Fla., and then play the Gators on that team's home field two days later. UCLA gets the advantage of playing at home through the first three rounds, but a potential quarterfinal trip across the country to face No. 1 Duke will be a tough test for a young team whose brightest days may come next season.

After seeing two programs make College Cup debuts last season, Boston College and Ohio State, Kennesaw could bring another round of first-timers -- and a first time without some old faces.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @grahamhays.

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