CARY, N.C. -- There wasn't a great deal of doubt about which two teams played the best soccer in the semifinals of the College Cup. The only moments of doubt in both of Friday's games at WakeMed Soccer Park came in wondering whether the inevitable goal would beat the imperious clock.
Stanford solved the riddle early in the second half of its game. Notre Dame found its answer late. And in a nutshell, there's the story of Sunday's championship game (ESPN2, noon ET), a battle between the best team all season and one playing like it over the past four weeks.
A battle between a team that knew what it was all along and another that perhaps had to learn.
Notre Dame's game started in daylight, but the surrounding scenery had long since vanished into the blackness behind the stadium lights when Mandy Laddish blasted home the only goal in a 1-0 win against Ohio State.
After a slow first half in which the Fighting Irish gradually gained control of possession against the Buckeyes but produced relatively few scoring chances, they dominated play in the second half. Yet between a superb performance from Ohio State goalkeeper Katie Baumgardner, who recorded 10 saves, and the unluck of the Irish when it came to hitting all sides of the goal frame, the game hung in the balance until Laddish took a pass from Melissa Henderson at midfield in the 83rd minute, raced into the gap between four defenders and rifled home her second goal of the season from about 20 yards out.
"I was extremely, extremely proud of our kids, especially in the second half," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said. "We had some concerns early, I think, in the first half, especially with their two forwards up front. They gave us a few problems in the first half, and I thought we made some adjustments in the second half and did a great job. I thought the second half was very reminiscent of the Notre Dame teams that we're used to seeing."
There are certainly similarities between this Notre Dame team and the past four editions, all of which advanced to the College Cup, and even the 2004 national champions. Just as in this stadium two years ago in a semifinal win against Stanford, a freshman midfielder scored the winning goal for Notre Dame. That time it was Courtney Barg, a highly touted recruit who wasted little time adjusting to the college game. This time it was Laddish, a highly touted recruit who filled in for Barg while the latter was out for the first two months of the season and then kept her starting spot even after Barg rejoined the lineup.
A coincidence, sure, but also a reminder of how Waldrum's program simply keeps reloading with fresh reserves of the best talent in the nation.
However, this isn't quite your carbon copy Notre Dame team, and that makes it easier to embrace than the agents of empire before it. After a late-season lull and a loss at home in their first game of the Big East tournament, the Fighting Irish failed to either finish atop the Big East regular-season standings or win the conference tournament title for the first time since 2002. But far from imploding under the pressure of living up to the past, this team just kept having fun and playing its own brand of soccer (after a 5 a.m. film session following the Connecticut loss, of course).
This Notre Dame team enjoys being around itself, and the result is a free-flowing, fluid style that took the regular-season slide in stride and bounced back to breeze through a brutal draw in the NCAA tournament. Waldrum's easygoing drawl notwithstanding, he's a lot more Bo Pelini than Matthew McConaughey. But even he is succumbing to the style of a team that didn't let its late-season fade flummox it, much as it didn't let Friday's second-half frustrations fluster it before finally finding a way past Baumgardner.
"I've had great kids come through this program, and you get attached to your players all along," Wadrum said of a tenure that began in 1999. "This team has been the most fun I can remember having. They're loose; they're goofy. They have fun. They love each other. The chemistry is great. But as a coach, the thing you always worry about [is], are they focused? You want to control every little thing. And I think these last few weeks, they've even got me into that mode with them a little bit. When you roll a ball out and get started, they know when to focus and play.
"Even before the game, all the dancing and singing in the locker room, and then before the game everybody's still kind of cutting up in the warm-up before the game. Other teams we've had, that would drive me crazy because I would think they're not focused. This team -- it's still a game to them. They've been fun to be around because it seems like watching all the little youth kids play, when it's still genuine and it's still the game and it's not the business part of it."
Speaking of which, Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe is all about the idea that it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. However, it's not necessarily a perspective borne of childlike ideals of sport. Frankly, he can't focus on whether his team wins or loses because one end of that seesaw almost never comes down for the Cardinal, who have lost just thrice in their past 76 games.
So while Stanford wasn't losing at halftime of its semifinal against Boston College -- one of just two teams to take any points off the Pac-10 champion this season, in an August draw -- Ratcliffe "wasn't exactly pleased" with how his team was playing. Never mind that most coaches dream of a team that can control Kristie Mewis and Victoria DiMartino for 45 minutes while producing several near-miss scoring chances from the feet of All-American Christen Press.
And as might be expected of a team that returned eight starters from last season's finalist squad, opened this season at No. 1, survived a two-week road trip through four eventual NCAA tournament teams to start the campaign, and blew away the competition in the Pac-10 and the first four rounds of the postseason, the Cardinal wasted little time showing their true colors in the second half. Not unlike the first game's goal, junior Camille Levin seized an opening in the middle of the field and unleashed a shot from the edge of the 18-yard box that never gave Boston College keeper Jillian Mastroianni a chance as it buried itself in the top right corner in the 48th minute. The Eagles didn't go away and nearly equalized in the 78th minute, but Lindsay Taylor's goal in the 87th minute was the icing on a second half largely controlled by the Cardinal.
"Tonight was a hard game," Ratcliffe said. "It's a tight match, and people are playing like it's the last game of their lives. So at times these games can be a little bit ugly, and we need to get better playing like that sometimes to get the result at the end of the day. But you saw at times the great passing and the fluid movement of things occurring."
Stanford was what Stanford has been all season, an athletic, artistic attack disguising a brutal efficiency. The Cardinal play prettier soccer than anyone, but they also have more talent than anyone. And so even as Press was the most dangerous player on a field littered with people who nurture professional dreams and even national team aspirations, it was Levin who stepped forward and proved the difference -- or actually, who stepped back into the midfield from her position as a forward and proved the difference. Notre Dame has its own All-American Swiss army knife in Lauren Fowlkes, who shifted seamlessly between forward and holding midfielder against Ohio State, but Levin, who has played outside back, center back, forward and all through the midfield this season, is a perfect example of why Stanford has the luxury of measuring success against itself as much as against the scoreboard.
"[Levin] is an incredible player," Ratcliffe said. "I'm so happy for today to get that big-time goal, and she deserves it. She is a player that can be one of our best forwards, one of our best forwards and one of our best backs. Wherever we need her in a given game, she's willing to go in there and make a big difference. You saw that today; that adjustment, I think, really changed the game. When we put [Levin] into center mid, it really opened things up for us because she was winning so many balls, breaking through, and then the goal she scored was magnificent."
And so we come to Sunday, when either Stanford will become the eighth program to win an NCAA women's soccer championship (and the second athletic program to win 100 championships across all sports) or Notre Dame will become the first team other than North Carolina to win at least three NCAA women's soccer championships. It's a battle of brilliant forwards in Press and Henderson, a battle of underrated back lines, unsung midfields and players who keep making the most of opportunities. And it's a battle of the best team all season against a team having a lot of fun playing like it wants that label.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.