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BC has firepower to stick with elite

NEWTON, Mass. -- Boston College will have to wait until temperatures tumble and Thanksgiving leftovers dwindle for a chance to earn a place in the College Cup and a shot at the national championship, the final steps in the program's ascension to the upper crust of women's college soccer. It won't have to wait nearly that long for another shot at Stanford, the team that stopped it one game short of all of that last fall in a 3-1 NCAA tournament quarterfinal defeat.

Coming off an 18-4-2 campaign and the deepest postseason run in program history, No. 7 BC hosts No. 2 Stanford on Friday in one of the signature games of the season's opening weekend.

"It's definitely our hardest first game, which is a good thing, I think," said senior co-captain Hannah Cerrone, whose teams also have opened against Central Connecticut State, Boston University and Fairfield. "We're not easing into anything; we're just getting right into it. I think it will give us a good kick start for the rest of the season."

Win, lose or draw, the game for both teams is, as Cerrone says, merely a start to seasons that will wind through the two toughest conferences in the country -- the ACC for Boston College and the Pac-10 for Stanford. But it's also an appropriate place to begin for the Eagles, a team that returns nine starters and hopes not only to pick up where it left off in the program's most successful campaign but to keep moving forward.

Since she was hired as coach prior to the 1997 season, Alison Kulik has never had a losing season at BC. Perhaps just as impressive, her teams have produced a .500-or-better conference record in five seasons since leaving the Big East for the ACC, the proverbial deep end of the pool in women's college soccer. She's gradually guided the Eagles past eight-time College Cup participant Connecticut as the premier program in the talent-rich Northeast.

Yet through all of that growth, Boston College has perhaps never had a team quite like the one preparing for Stanford. A season ago, the Eagles scored 55 goals, matching the school record. All but nine of those goals were scored by players returning this season, including the 19 by Victoria DiMartino and Kristen Mewis as freshmen.

The talent base will be fortified with the addition of freshmen Mary Gibson Wagner and Rachel Davitt, both ranked among the top 30 recruits in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer.

It's something short of profound to suggest teams that can score win more often than teams that don't. But programs trying to break into the sport's elite realistically need to average in the neighborhood of 2.5 goals per game against top competition. Why that mark? Last year's title for North Carolina marked just the third time, along with Portland in 2002 and USC in 2007, that a team won a national championship averaging fewer than 2.5 goals per game (and at 2.3 goals per game, the Tar Heels weren't far off the mark).

Between the maturation of its returning talent and the additional depth provided by the new arrivals, BC has the talent to fare even better than the 2.3 goals per game it averaged a season ago, a mark that ranked 17th nationally (out of 312 teams).

"I think that is now becoming a strength of ours, our attacking presence," Kulik said. "The good thing about this team is it could come from anybody.
"We have a lot of different types of forwards and different ways to get at you. And it keeps [the BC forwards] honest because they know if they take a break, the next girl is rotating on. So it keeps our forwards honest -- not only dangerous in the attack but honest on the defensive side too."

BC's defense is not to be overlooked. BC allowed just 13 goals last season and returns junior goalkeeper Jillian Mastroianni, one of three Eagles among 45 players nationwide on the preseason "watch list" for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's version of the Heisman.

But the attack gives BC its identity, and DiMartino and Mewis, the other two Hermann notables, spearhead that group. Only sophomores, they already play off each other like seniors, a testament to time spent playing together at the national level, including at the 2008 Under-17 Women's World Cup and 2010 Under-20 Women's World Cup.

"I think they have a great chemistry," Kulik said. "You say sometimes players are telepathic; I think those two have that type of connection. They just know when to make little diagonal [runs], they show up for each other at the right times, they know how to make the appropriate pass that each other likes. It's a dynamic duo that's really tough to stop. And they love playing together too, so that always helps."

Mewis, a native of Hanson, Mass., played all over the field last season but could settle in a central attacking midfield role this season. In addition to her creativity on the ball, Mewis has an ability to put the ball on net with power from distance that few can match. After watching her pick out the far corner from 20 yards during a preseason scrimmage against UConn, courtesy of an assist from DiMartino, longtime Huskies coach Len Tsantiris had to give credit where credit was due on the first of four BC goals.

"No goalkeeper would stop [that shot]," Tsantiris said.

After winning three NCAA tournament games at home last fall to reach the quarterfinals for the first time, the Eagles ran headlong into a wall on the road against Stanford. The Eagles took a 1-0 lead in the second minute, only to see 2009 Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O'Hara tie the game 50 seconds later, then give her team the lead midway through the first half.

The Cardinal still have Christen Press, a Hermann contender this season, in addition to four players who participated in the Under-20 Women's World Cup over the summer. But O'Hara has moved on to the professional ranks, and in Kulik's mind, she was the difference between the teams that day.

"I think they had a couple of really special players -- and a couple of them return," Kulik said. "But Kelley O'Hara, I thought, was just a handful in that game. She was arguably one of the top two forwards in the country, and I didn't think we did a good job containing her. Thankfully, she's gone."

Friday's game won't necessarily reveal whether Boston College is in the championship race to stay, but it will provide a solid first impression.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.