Press is No. 1 Stanford difference-maker

Richard C. Ersted/Stanford Athletics

Christen Press possesses nearly every meaningful record in the annals of Stanford University women's soccer -- except the one she most desires.

The senior striker from Palos Verdes Estates has been the nation's most prolific scorer over the past four years, and her exploits in front of the net have played a huge part in prodding the Cardinal to three successive College Cup final fours.

Now it's time to win.

Press, who leads the nation with 26 goals in 22 games, leads top-ranked Stanford (20-0-2) into this weekend's College Cup in Cary, N.C., and after falling to North Carolina in last year's title game, only one outcome is acceptable.

"We were all very disappointed [to lose last year], and I think we're in a season where it's the national championship or be disappointed again,” she said. "It's not impossible to have a successful year [without the title]. It would just be unsatisfying."

The Cardinal takes on Boston College (17-6-1) in a semifinal Friday (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m.), with a title-game matchup against Notre Dame (19-2-2) or Ohio State (17-4-1) looming Sunday (ESPN2, 9 a.m.).

Press, the only serious contender for every national player-of-the-year award, has been virtually unstoppable this season: She's had a goal or assist in all but four of the Cardinal's games, posted seven multigoal games -- three in her last seven outings -- and dazzled foes as the signature player in a deep, talented Stanford lineup.

Her 26 goals tied the school single-season mark set last year by Kelley O'Hara, and she set career records for goals, points and assists this season. The single-season assist record is hers, too, with 16 last year.

"Christen has been amazing all four years at Stanford," Cardinal coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "She's got the highest level of skill that you can have, I think. Great striker of the ball with both feet, and she's a goalscorer. She's got that knack. And that's hard to teach."

Opponents agree.

"She's a tremendous player, and I think she's grown in her personality and her confidence," said UCLA coach Jill Ellis, whose team was eliminated in last year's semifinals by Press' overtime strike. "I think last year [in the final against North Carolina], when O'Hara got sent off, I think she took a big step forward. I really do.

"I think that was like the catalyst for her, that, suddenly, it's like, 'OK, this can be my team.' "

Said USC coach Ali Khosroshahin: "She's special, man. A very good player, with a bright future ahead of her."

Press grew up in an athletic family. Her father, Cody, an investment banker, played football at Dartmouth. Her older sister, Tyler, played soccer at Harvard. Little sister Channing just completed her freshman season at Villanova.

"We were a soccer family," Press said. "When I think back to [growing up], I think about the whole family piling into the minivan, driving two hours to a soccer tournament with a cooler in the back."

Press says she was "just one of those kids who liked to be out on the soccer field," and the time was well-spent. "You think that going out for 15 minutes as a kid every day doesn't really make a difference, but in the end it does. Juggling and just extra shots and all that just helps perfect your touch."

She had the skills to play with two years up at Palos Verdes SC, with Tyler's team, which moved en masse to Newport Beach's nationally recognized Slammers FC as she neared her teen years. The advanced coaching enhanced her game and set her path to Stanford after she led tony Chadwick School to two CIF Southern Section high school titles, scoring 138 goals in four prep seasons.

With privilege came opportunity, but also responsibility, and he success, Press says, is as much hard work as talent.

"I try to be a good person, and with that people know you have to work hard to achieve anything," she said. "I'm very blessed, thankful, grateful for the opportunities I've had. No doubt they've helped me get there I am, the blessings.

"My mom always preached that it's a sin to waste God-given blessings and talent, that we're responsible to work as hard as we can and push ourselves. Dad was an overachiever -- he achieved more in sports than he probably should have -- and they think it's important to go for more, to always try to achieve more."

Press was a star the moment she arrived at Stanford. She was the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year in 2007, as a sophomore was the only Stanford player on the all-tournament team at the College Cup -- the Cardinal lost to Notre Dame in the semifinals -- and was the nation's No. 3 scorer (with 21 goals and 16 assists) and a second-team All-American as a junior.

She followed the overtime goal that beat UCLA in the NCAA semifinals last year with a late equalizer in the final against North Carolina, but it was waved off by an offside flag.

The disappointment of that loss has provided massive motivation for the Cardinal, which comes into the final four with a 21-game winning streak and shutouts in eight of its last nine, 10 of its last 12, and 13 of its last 17 victories.

"It's a relief [to accomplish] what we've been working toward all this season,” Press said. "It's hard to get to the final four, never as sure as it seems. And it's gratifying just, really, to be able to do what was expected."

Ratcliffe has a deep, talented side featuring nearly a dozen players with extensive youth national team experience -- sophomore midfielder Mariah Nogueira (Westminster/Marina HS) among them -- and the Cardinal have been ranked No. 1 nearly the entire season.

“It's always hard to be the team with X on your back. Teams come out to match you with a game plan every game. But nothing is new to us now. We're definitely able to [cope with being a big favorite], as North Carolina demonstrated" while winning 21 national championships.

Stanford is aiming for its first, and Press would trade all the records and all the individual honors for the national-championship trophy.

"We have experience, and we have confidence, and now we know that hard work wins big games," she said. "So now that we have that knowledge, we know that we control our destiny."