Flossmoor native has Stanford eyeing 2nd straight title in women's soccer

Goalie Oliver has moved on from spring injury, back in goal for No. 2 Cardinal

Emily Oliver does not want to look back at the injury last spring that threatened her junior season in goal for defending NCAA soccer champion Stanford.

"It's not important," she said. "I'm moving forward now that I'm back playing."

But Oliver readily recalls how much it hurt to watch Stanford lose the College Cup national championship game 1-0 to North Carolina in 2009. It was the year before she left Flossmoor for Palo Alto, Calif., and the first year the Cardinal had made the final.

"I went to that College Cup (in North Carolina) with my family and I felt that pain, but not as much as the girls on the team," she said this week. "To come that far and be that close is heartbreaking."

Oliver would experience those emotions more intensely in 2010, when she was in goal as Stanford lost the final again 1-0 to Notre Dame.

Last season, the story finally had a happy ending. With Oliver winning the NCAA tournament's Most Valuable Defensive Player award and making two huge saves late in the final, Stanford beat Duke 1-0 for its first title.

"It was more relief than excitement," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "We're hoping to win again in the future so we can feel more excitement."

Oliver's chances to help her team do that this fall were compromised by an April injury she declines to identify, perhaps feeling it will give opponents an advantage. Although she waited for a doctor's decision about whether she could play this season, no surgery was involved.

She returned at halftime of No. 2 Stanford's ninth game and had started five straight after Thursday night's 4-1 victory at Arizona. The team was 6-1-1 before Oliver returned and has six straight wins since.

"I'm not too far off my best level," she said. "I still have certain situations where I need to get more comfortable."

That level — and a formidable team defense — has brought Oliver 23 shutouts in 47 starts and a career goals-against average of 0.29, third-best in NCAA history.

"She has the ability to come up with the big save every time she is called upon," Ratcliffe said. "She makes difficult saves look easy because of her positioning. Ultimately, though, it is her competitive drive and confidence that impresses me most."

Six games into Oliver's freshman year, Ratcliffe gave her the starting job, replacing the goalie who had taken Stanford to the national final.

"It is rare for a freshman to do that well at such a critical position," he said.

"There was a lot of pressure on me as a freshman," she said. "I felt both super nervous and comfortable because the coaches had confidence in me and the rest of the girls had my back."

Oliver may have been more prepared than most because she left the girls team at Homewood-Flossmoor after her sophomore year to train with the Windy City Pride's Under-18 and Under-19 boys teams. That got her accustomed to harder shots, a more physical game and a faster pace of play.

"It definitely helps," two-time Olympian Nicole Barnhart said. "But no matter how prepared you are, stepping into the college level is a big transition."

Barnhart, a volunteer coach since her Stanford graduation in 2005, had done the same thing, playing for a boys high school team because her school did not have girls soccer. She was a backup as a college freshman but went on to win first-team All-America honors twice and become the Stanford goalie whose career goals-against mark (0.45) OIiver is challenging.

Oliver, a human biology major, was third-team All-America last year. She allowed only one goal in six NCAA tournament games.

She also had to make only 16 saves in those games. It didn't hurt to be playing behind the most talented team in the country.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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