Cardinal freshmen glide over Pepperdine Waves to NCAA tournament win

No. 6 Stanford women’s soccer (16-0-4, 8-0-3 Pac-12) conquered the Pepperdine Waves (9-5-5, 6-2 WCC) in a 3-0 shutout on Friday. The Cardinal entered the NCAA tournament undefeated and with plenty of national attention. Although the Waves presented aggressive opposing attackers to the fray, the Cardinal’s potent combination of veterans and newbies prevailed. 

After controlling possession but failing to convert multiple crosses across the goal, Stanford secured their first goal in the 31st minute from sophomore midfielder Jasmine Aikey. Freshly off the bench, freshman forward Erica Grilione bolted down the left side and passed the ball to freshman midfielder Joelle Jung, who tapped it to Aikey. In her signature style, Aikey blasted the ball from the top of the box. Aikey, who recently had a hat-trick game, was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.

The score remained 1-0 in the Cardinal’s favor at the end of the first half. After a tough battle in the start of the second half, Stanford scored their next goal in the 52nd minute from fifth-year center-back and co-captain Kennedy Wesley. A short corner from Aikey to sophomore forward Allie Montoya was sent back to Wesley for the goal. The strike from Wesley banged off the crossbar and bounced off Pepperdine’s goalkeeper into the back of the net.

Shortly after this goal, freshman midfielder Shae Harvey stole the ball outside the box and delivered a perfect pass to redshirt sophomore forward Andrea Kitahata, who scored the final goal in the 74th minute. 

Head coach Paul Ratcliffe expressed great satisfaction with the Cardinal’s offensive performance during the game. Reflecting on the NCAA tournament, he emphasized the high stakes.

“Our mindset is [that the NCAA is] a new season. We had a great regular season and we’re proud of that. But now it’s a new season. You’ve got to win to advance,” Ratcliffe said. “We’ve got to take care of all the details and play like it’s the last game of the year every game … I thought all the players up front played well and in the midfield, so really good team performance.” 

Stanford’s offensive success was evident in yesterday’s match. But equally crucial for their victory was their strong defensive wall — a combination of fifth-year players and newbies. Freshman right-back Mia Bhuta played an essential role in squelching Pepperdine’s threatening attackers. In her first NCAA tournament game as a starter, Bhuta commended the older players’ leadership, which has eased pressure and contributed to her confidence on the field. 

“All our upperclassmen have made playing on this team so much fun,” Bhuta said. “As soon as we got here from day one, they never made us feel like, ‘Oh, you’re just a freshman.’ … I think everyone on this team, starter or coming off the bench, brings so much to the game. It’s really a testament to our team on how we’ve been able to just have a nice, smooth transition this year.”

Harvey, also a starting freshman, echoed this sentiment, adding that her teammates help alleviate some of the pressure associated with freshmen achieving success this early in their collegiate careers. “We’re really lucky because our team is so deep. We have the strongest team ever out there, no matter what,” Harvey said.

Both Bhuta and Harvey have experience with high-stakes games. Playing on the U17 Youth National Team, Harvey and Bhuta cultivated a friendship before coming to Stanford. Their experience and play on the national team have seamlessly translated into their play on the Farm. 

“I’m so happy that I got to meet Shae before I came here. Also a lot of the girls on our team now were in those [national team] camps with us. The culture [and] studying the standard has helped us a lot. And just being comfortable playing under pressure and thriving in those environments have prepared us for now playing here,” Bhuta said. 

“The level [on the national team] is super, super high and the pressure is also super high, which has definitely prepared us to be here now,” Harvey said.

Harvey, in particular, has become a key asset both in the defensive half as well as in the midfield. Halfway through both halves, Harvey was pulled to center back as a tactical strategy. 

“You always want to be on the ball, and sometimes you’ve got to drop a little further back to do that. Pepperdine was definitely trying to press us pretty high with two against our two. So we just want to be up a number and if I can help out anyway, I will,” Harvey said. 

Ratcliffe implemented this change to strategically position Harvey. “It’s more of a tactical move to open up the spaces in the midfield a little bit and kind of pull them out ,and then our center backs kind of separate. So it’s more of a strategy thing that we were doing, and Shae did a really good job of employing,” Ratcliffe said. 

Ratcliffe recognized the contributions the freshmen have made thus far: “It’s been incredible for us. They bring so much energy, their work ethic, their enthusiasm, their willingness to learn and grow.”

“I think if you speak to all the older players there, they’re so proud of them too. So I think we have a really good balance of super talented young players and great leadership that are older,” Ratcliffe said. 

The Cardinal advanced to the next round of the NCAA tournament. To witness the strong leadership of the veterans and the hungry play of the freshmen, watch the Cardinal take on No. 36 South Carolina (12-2-6, 5-0-5 SEC) on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. PT at Cagan Stadium.

Originally posted 2023-11-13 08:58:43.