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Stanford wins NCAA soccer title over North Carolina in a shootout

SAN JOSE — Kiki Pickett didn’t hesitate. After chasing down a ball, the Stanford fullback carefully placed it on the marker in the sixth round of penalty kicks and drew a deep breath.

“I knew where I was going to put it there,” she said of the sudden-death moment.

“There” was in the left corner of the net that sent Stanford to a 5-4 victory Sunday night and ended a drawn-out drama as top-ranked Stanford weathered No. 2 North Carolina to win the NCAA championship in a shootout.

“We all had butterflies, especially me, knowing that I had to score for us to win,” Pickett said. “But I knew that my team had my back and we are literally a family, so we do it for each other.”

After 110 minutes of riveting scoreless soccer, the Cardinal (24-1) won its second College Cup in three years as goalkeeper Katie Meyer stopped Taylor Otto on the first penalty and then Tori Hansen just before Pickett’s game-winner.

No one expected it would be nice and easy. Not when the country’s best two women’s soccer teams met at Avaya Stadium. Stanford and North Carolina played a game of budge in which neither school could score through two overtimes in front of 9,591 fans — the 10th largest crowd in history for a women’s final.

“You need a little bit of luck in PKs and I thought we were fortunate, but at the same time, we trained really hard at PKs,” Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said.

Meyer, for one, savored the moment.

“PKs have been my thing throughout my life,” said Meyer, who also made a monumental penalty kick stop against UCLA’s Mia Fishel in the semifinals Friday night. “Pressure is a great opportunity for me.”

Meyer said he had a feeling that Hansen was going to shoot to the left side on North Carolina’s final attempt.

“I looked at her and I just told myself, ‘This ball is mine. This ball has to be mine,’ ” Meyer said. “When you want it that bad and my teammates were calling my name saying I got it, there’s a feeling deep down in you that you can do anything. I made the save and I knew that KiKi was going to make her PK.”

If Meyer likes pressure then she got all that she could handle from the opening kickoff. Soccer’s titans tried their darndest to find openings against defenses as sturdy as mack trucks.

“I think as much of an offensive team it is, we’ve shown this season we can defend with the best teams,” Meyer said. “We can defend and attack the entirety of the whole game.”

North Carolina executed a plan to neutralize Stanford’s firepower. With the help of goalkeeper Claudia Dickey, the strategy worked as the Cardinal’s high-scoring forwards Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith and Maddie Haley struggled to get good looks.

But Carolina strikers Alessia Russo and Izzy Cox had an equally difficult task breaking down Stanford’s defense.

“Even as we weren’t scoring, we weren’t worried either,” Meyer said. “The fact it came down to penalty kicks showed what a defensive team this is.”

Both teams made concerted efforts with their defenses absorbing blow after blow after blow.

Stanford almost got the sudden death goal in the final two minutes of the second overtime. First, Carley Malatskey fired a 22-yard shot that Dickey dove to bat away. A moment later, the ball fell to Smith in the mixer. The sophomore striker blasted the ball off the crossbar as North Carolina got to the shootout.

Macario got the shootout off right for Stanford by burying her shot. Then Smith and Naomi Girma scored before Dickey stopped Malatskey’s shot. But Kennedy Wesley tied the score and left the rest to Meyer and Pickett.

North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said his staff employed a new formation Saturday — a 4-3-2-1 lineup — to throw off the Cardinal.

North Carolina defenders focused on stopping Haley from distributing the ball in the penalty area by making sure she was closely marked every time the ball came her way.

“Her ability to hold the ball up, spin a central defender and slip balls through and go in on her own is remarkable,” Dorrance said. “We had to come up with an idea on how to stop her.

We were spitballing because we lost a significant player before we got here,” he added of losing the player of the year finalist Emily Fox because of an injury last week.

The Tar Heels still had enough gusto to also hound Macario, the reigning player of the year.

Whenever Macario got inside the penalty area three defenders converged to shut her down, including a rocket shot in the 76th minute.

But the Brazil-born Macario has a motto: If you don’t shoot you can’t score. So she kept creating space with nifty runs at the Tar Heels.

The last time the schools met in the College Cup also was a taut game. The Tar Heels won the 2012 semifinal match 1-0 with a goal in the second overtime. North Carolina also defeated Stanford 1-0 for the 2009 national championship.

Stanford’s best look in the first half came in the 34th minute when Macario fed Smith with a long lead on the right side. Smith immediately cut to the center because the Tar heels were determined to prohibit her from attacking from the right flank. Smith broke through the backline before firing toward the right post that Dickey tracked to knock away.

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