Christen Press leads balanced Stanford

The first four rounds of the NCAA tournament tell a tale of egalitarian unrest. Examine a bracket stripped of three No. 1 seeds in the first three rounds and six of the top eight seeds in the first four rounds and the message seems to be that no favorite is safe, every extra game earned is a privilege. But as the final four teams gather for the College Cup, there is at least one other interpretation centered on the lone team immune to the uprising.

Nobody else has Christen Press.

Where so many teams have struggled, Stanford has surged this postseason. The only No. 1 seed to make it to Cary, N.C., the program's third consecutive trip to the final weekend, the Cardinal have outscored opponents 13-1 in their first four NCAA tournament games. They capped off that run with a 5-0 rout of Florida State in the quarterfinals, the most lopsided quarterfinal shutout in five years. Press contributed one of the goals against the Seminoles, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The senior striker has scored at least one goal in all but five of her team's 24 games this season.

She leads the nation in goals (26) and goals per game (1.083), but those are merely the more mundane measures of her dominance.

You could just point out that she has scored more goals by herself than eight Big East teams managed to score this season.

No team has beaten Stanford -- draws at Boston College and at North Carolina are the only imperfections on a 22-0-2 record. Duke gave that quest as good a go as almost anyone, taking a 1-0 second-half lead and matching the Cardinal almost shot for shot when the teams met early in the season, but the Blue Devils walked away on the wrong end of a 2-1 loss after Press put home the winner late in the game.

"You have to start with her," Duke coach Robbie Church said this week. "You've got to solve her, and not many people have been able to solve her at all. She is so dynamic. She is so quick and fast -- and she's fast not only being fast, but she's fast with the ball. She really has a great killer instinct; when she turns, she's going to goal and she wants to score goals."

And in a season in which upset after upset proves nothing is given based on reputation or ranking, Press is the perfect star to take the stage at the College Cup. She is the defense-tormenting, goal-scoring embodiment of rising to the occasion.

Stanford is back in the College Cup this season despite losing Kelley O'Hara, the reigning Hermann Trophy winner, the award handed out each year to the nation's best player. That is not an insignificant sentence. Notre Dame used a surprise run to reach the College Cup last season, its first without former Hermann winner Kerri Hanks, but the Fighting Irish were just the second team other than North Carolina (an entity unto itself in the sport's history) to reach the semifinals the season after a Hermann winner left the scene. And Stanford didn't just make the semifinals; it made it without a loss and scoring essentially just as much as it did last season (3.00 goals per game this season, 3.08 goals per game last season).

Press opened the season sixth all-time in goals and tied for third all-time in assists at Stanford; the latter no small feat when the person she was tied with was Julie Foudy. But Press also entered her final season as John Stockton without Karl Malone or Lou Gehrig without Babe Ruth.

Her answer? She now stands alone in first place all-time in both goals and assists for the Cardinal.

"I'm very, very impressed with her having the year that she's had after losing Kelley O'Hara," Church said. "Kelley obviously demanded a lot of attention herself last year. The best man-to-man marker's probably on Kelley and then the second one will go with Christen. That's not the case this year. I mean, Lindsay Taylor's a really good player, and whoever they play up front is also another good player, but Christen Press is getting everybody's best shot."

All of which must make the most infectious grin a (likely) Hermann winner has flashed in a long time that much more infuriating for opponents. It's one thing that she's faster than you, or better on the ball than you, or possesses a defter touch than you or strikes the ball better than you. But does she have to have so much fun doing it? Granted, Press may not face quite the everyday scrutiny of campus peer Andrew Luck, but far from wilting under the pressure of replacing an irreplaceable player, she seems to be having the time of her life doing it. Only a sophomore at the time, Press scored a late winner in Stanford's 1-0 quarterfinal win against Portland in 2008. Two years later, she did it again with the eventual game-winner against the Pilots in the regular season. It seems she always had the talent; the leading role was just the natural progression.

"The biggest thing this year is she's just playing carefree," Portland coach Garrett Smith said this week. "She's enjoying herself out there, which all great players do. She just looks like she's happy out there playing, and when somebody is enjoying the game as much as she is, as good as she is, she's going to be a dynamic player -- exactly what she is for Stanford."

The Cardinal are, of course, anything but a one-woman team. Take away Press' 26 goals and they still average two goals per game, a mark barely 10 percent of Division I teams reached this season. And that's just on offense; they have allowed a grand total of three goals since the end of September and have scored more goals than they've allowed shots on goal. In fact, it's the breadth of talent across the field that opposing coaches often talk about first when it comes to Stanford, sometimes with an almost wistful whistle of admiration mixed with jealousy.

But at some point, the conversation almost inevitably finds its way to Press.

"I'm sure it took a lot of hours of hard work in the spring and the summer training to get ready to be on this big stage," Church said. "It's been very impressive to see her step forward when everyone is shooting to stop her. That's not an easy thing to do."

The best player on college soccer just makes it look that way.

Other players to watch this weekend

Courtney Verloo (No. 5), Stanford: As long as Cat Whitehill is on the call, those oft-overlooked bulwarks on the back line are going to get their due. And if the weekend goes as many expect for Stanford, expect to hear Verloo's name. She's a newcomer to defense -- playing forward as recently as the Under-20 World Cup last summer -- but she's big, fast, physical and learning rather quickly.

Camille Levin (No. 2), Stanford: She started the year filling one of the vacated spots at outside back, but her move to the top of the lineup alongside Press and Taylor completed the three-pronged attack in front of a potent supporting midfield that has made the Cardinal such an offensive juggernaut in recent season. As 11 assists suggest, she keeps the traffic moving.

Kristie Mewis (No 19), Boston College: Possibly the best midfielder in the college game (although she's also played some forward as Boston College employed a lot of 4-3-3). She's the perfect combination of skill and sweat, able to blast shots from 30 yards, dance around defenders on the dribble, or when the need arises, go through traffic like a fullback searching for a first down.

Julia Bouchelle (No. 12), Boston College: Eagles coach Alison Foley is fond of saying she has the best keeper in the country in Jillian Mastroianni, and the firepower provided by Mewis and Vicki DiMartino takes the rest of the spotlight, but don't overlook Bouchelle, younger sister of former Penn State standout Zoe Bouchelle. Any role she's asked to fill in the midfield -- holding early in the season and attacking in the postseason -- she does with quiet effectiveness.

Alaina Beyar (No. 17), Boston College: Another defender, but don't expect to have any trouble locating Beyar. She'll be the one attempting to attach herself to Press' hip. Their battle in the season opener was sensational and announced Beyar's place as a potentially elite outside back. She's played through an ankle injury for much of the season and played through it well.

Melissa Henderson (No. 6), Notre Dame: At a game earlier this season, one grizzled veteran grumbled that he didn't know what all the fuss was about with Henderson; she didn't look like a national team striker to him. Such are expectations when you're in the spotlight at Notre Dame. Whatever her future -- and don't put a ceiling on it just yet -- Henderson is a prolific college finisher with tremendous touch in and around the 18-yard box.

Lauren Fowlkes (No. 9), Notre Dame: Everyone is a two-way player in soccer (however much some strikers test such sentiment), but Fowlkes is the ultimate Swiss Army Knife. She's a rock in the middle of the defense, but she also has the size and skill to play off Henderson up top, where she has been of late for the Fighting Irish.

Courtney Barg (No. 13), Notre Dame: She was almost forced to miss the season with a hip injury but traded most of the regular season for a shot at a postseason run with this season's seniors. An offensive talent whom coach Randy Waldrum compares to former Hermann winner Anne Makinen, she sacrifices some of those chances to steady this team as a holding midfielder.

Cassie Dickerson (No. 13), Ohio State: Knee injuries kept her off the field for her first two seasons in Columbus. Nobody has been able to get the defensive stalwart off the field in the two seasons since. And considering that the Buckeyes have allowed only 24 goals in the 42 games she's played over those two seasons, it's easy to see why they don't try.

Paige Maxwell (No. 10), Ohio State: The Buckeyes scored 14 goals in 10 conference games in the Big Ten; Maxwell scored eight of them. The Buckeyes are here in part because they proved opportunistic in the postseason -- five players are responsible for the team's six NCAA tournament goals and Maxwell isn't among them. But perhaps that just means Maxwell is due.

Katie Baumgardner (No. 0), Ohio State: The junior keeper survived a 1-0 nail-biter in the first round, a 0-0 penalty shootout in the second round and a furious Virginia comeback in Charlottesville in the Sweet 16. It would seem her nerves have been tested in advance of Friday evening. If Ohio State coach Lori Walker, a former North Carolina keeper, believed giving Baumgardner the job at midseason was the right move, there must be something to it.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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