Andi Sullivan adds a late twist to Stanford's national championship script

Jaye Boissiere scores in the 67th minute to give Stanford the 3-2 win over UCLA for the second D-I Women's Soccer Championship in program history.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Andi Sullivan's goal would have clinched the title in the Hollywood version of this story. It would have been the exclamation mark on a college career during which she became a marquee name.

Not unlike Stanford's understated star, life offers more nuance, which made it all the more fitting that the goal Sullivan scored in the national championship game didn't win the title. It only allowed someone else to do so later. It was fitting that she set the stage, in so many ways, for Jaye Boissiere. Fitting that a teammate who missed nearly three full seasons with a variety of injuries had the resolve and the skill to drive the ball into the corner of the goal.

This team didn't need Sullivan to do it all. The best team in college soccer all season didn't need one player to carry them. The Cardinal just needed someone to hold them accountable.

They needed someone who could show them all that they could be.

After a 3-2 win over UCLA, they are national champions.

It didn't appear for a good part of the afternoon that the final step of Stanford's run to its second title would offer drama. Much as they did in the semifinal against South Carolina, the Cardinal dominated the ball in the opening minutes. They don't possess solely for possession's sake, instead keeping the ball only as long as it takes to spot a run or a seam in which to pass. But the result still feels at times like a game of keep-away.

UCLA chased, but Stanford possessed. And possessed.

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After Stanford controlled the opening minutes, Kyra Carusa converted a fortunate bounce to give the Cardinal a lead.

Granted, the opening goal was good fortune. UCLA goalkeeper Teagan Micah misjudged a deflected Catarina Macario cross from the left side. The ball bounced over Micah as she came to try and meet it, leaving Stanford forward Kyra Carusa to gather the ball and blast it into an open goal for a 1-0 lead. But possess the ball in the opponent's half of the field as much as Stanford did in those early minutes, and good fortune has a way of finding you.

The second goal needed no assist from the gods, only an assist from Macario, who with three assists Sunday surpassed Christen Press as the school's single-season assists leader. Macario slid the ball perfectly into Sullivan's run and the senior did the rest with a calm, quick finish for a 2-0 lead.

Yet rather than a stroll to the trophy, Stanford saw its lead vanish in the span of a little more than four minutes early in the second half. The Bruins no longer yielding possession, Zoey Goralski drew a penalty kick that Jessie Fleming converted in the 55th minute. Delanie Sheehan's header off a corner kick in the 59th minute tied the game 2-2.

Stanford had allowed one goal through more than 500 postseason minutes. Here the Cardinal wobbled after allowing two in such a flurry of seconds. But in the 67th minute, Boissiere's strike from more than 20 yards out found the back of the UCLA goal.

"I had a surprising amount of space at the top of the box," the 5-foot-2 Boissiere said. "And I knew that it's hard for goalies -- because I'm really short, so goalies really can't see me, especially if you have tall defenders and tall forwards in front of you. So I knew that the goalie probably didn't have a great look at where I was coming from."

The wind out of its sails, UCLA barely again threatened.

"It's tough because you use so much emotional and physical energy to tie it after being two down," UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said. "I think what Stanford did was pick it up again. We come back and tie it up and they now feel that they can put on the gas a little bit more -- they need to put on the gas a little bit more. And we had expended so much energy. ...

"Hats off to Jaye Boissiere because I think she was fantastic today. That goal was world class."

Boissiere's ninth goal this season was also a very long time coming for someone who arrived at Stanford the same year as Sullivan but entered Sunday's game with a sophomore's eligibility.

Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe's portion of the postgame press conference began and ended in about the same amount of time it took Boissiere to run through the full catalog of everything that kept her off the field the past three seasons. A knee injury after one appearance as a freshman forced her to the sideline for the remainder of that season. A subsequent knee injury kept her out for six months, only for two stress fractures to then sideline her immediately upon return.

It was only then that doctors diagnosed a stomach problem that was causing bacterial growth and nutritional-absorption issues -- without necessary levels of things like calcium and iron, she was almost literally running on empty. The injured bones and ligament were just the symptoms of a larger problem.

She was cleared to play at the outset of preseason of her third year -- and then tore the meniscus in her knee the next day.

She was finally cleared to play again late last fall. Within a span of days, Santa Clara stunned Stanford in the second round, a game in which Sullivan tore her ACL. Another season ended.

Not until Sept. 1 of this year did she score her first college goal, a week after her first start. There is a long list of things she now can't eat, but she said she has never felt better. And not just as Sunday's hero.

"She's probably one of the most inspirational people I've ever met," Sullivan said. "When I got hurt, I asked her advice a lot because she's been through not playing for months at a time or making progress and then having setbacks and all sorts of complications. And she never stopped. She never stopped working. She always did everything she could do, even if that was doing crappy pool workouts at 6 in the morning or getting up to go to PT multiple times a day.

"And then she'd come back and her touch was still better than everyone."

The admiration was mutual, naturally. Boissiere talked about Sullivan's natural leadership qualities, what makes it so easy to listen to her and talk to her, even as she demands so much. She talked about going to Sullivan when she herself was at a low ebb trying to get back on the field. It sounded like what just about every Stanford player says about the senior captain.

Stanford wouldn't be the sum of its considerable parts without her, which is also why Sullivan is already an important part of U.S. women's national team depth chart in advance of the 2019 Women's World Cup and is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NWSL draft.

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Catarina Macario got credit for three assists Sunday and broke Christen Press' single-season school assists record.

Go back to the Boissiere goal. Or more precisely, go back to a few seconds before she drove her foot through the ball. Momentum teetered in the balance after UCLA's second goal, minutes that featured some of the most end-to-end action in the game.

At one point in that run of play, UCLA's Anika Rodriguez pressed Stanford's Tegan McGrady on the sideline near midfield, stole the ball cleanly and took off into space with Stanford's goal in sight. Sprinting back to cover, Sullivan first shouldered Rodriguez off the ball and then cleanly tackled the ball away as the UCLA player tried to gather herself and change course.

She makes training better. She makes me want to be a better coach. She makes teammates better. She makes everyone around her better because she works so hard every day.
Paul Ratcliffe on Andi Sullivan

Three times Sullivan then calmly played short passes backward to quiet the havoc and reset things for Stanford. It was that ensuing possession that ultimately put the ball at Boissiere's feet.

"She's lived up to that billing and more," Ratcliffe said of Sullivan. "I think the thing that's really separated her and the thing that surprised me the most is her level of professionalism and her intensity every day in training and her leadership. All those qualities are really unique in a person her age. I think that is what separates her as one of the best players in the country.

"She makes training better. She makes me want to be a better coach. She makes teammates better. She makes everyone around her better because she works so hard every day."

If Stanford did take anything for granted a season ago because of the talent on hand, as Boissiere suggested might have been the case, it didn't this season. It lost just one game, on the road against a very good Florida team on an afternoon that saw Sullivan available for just half the game as she recovered from the ACL surgery. The Cardinal rolled through the postseason, rolled over outstanding teams in Penn State and South Carolina.

And then when finally tested in the second half Sunday, they answered.

Sullivan won back the ball and trusted her teammates. Boissiere did the rest.

"She's one of the most underrated players in college soccer, so I'm glad she's getting some good attention and scoring the game winner," Sullivan said. "She's been that good all along, and she knew that. And we knew that. So for her to finally get to play a full season and be healthy was huge for us all season long and we celebrated that all season."

They celebrated even more than that Sunday afternoon in Orlando.

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