“We’re pretty proud right now,” said Gunn, whose team had just defeated Wake Forest 5–4 in a shootout. “We’ll celebrate, we’re excited, we’re proud, and then we’ll go back and do what we do, which is going out and loving being together and loving the challenge of training.”
Stanford entered the weekend as the reigning champions. The Cardinal (15-3-5) are the first to repeat as champs since Indiana in 2004. Stanford also kept a clean sheet through the tournament, not allowing a goal and becoming the first national championship team to do so since Wisconsin in 1995.
The weekend began with two games on a chilly Friday evening at BBVA Stadium in downtown Houston. The final four teams, Denver, Stanford, North Carolina, and Wake Forest, met each other in the two semifinal games.
First up was Wake Forest (19-3-3) taking on Denver (20-1-4). The Demon Deacons put the first goal on the sheets with a seventh-minute strike by Jon Bakero. But the Pioneers evened things up in the 17th minute when Graham Smith lofted the ball to Andre Shinyashiki, who was able to score on a rebound. Regulation time and one overtime ended with the score stuck at 1–1. But in the 102nd minute of the game, during a second overtime, Deacon Ian Harkes scored on a breakaway that put the win in the Wake Forest column.
Next up was Stanford against the North Carolina (14-3-4). These teams were viewed as evenly matched coming into the game, and the Cardinal battled it out with UNC: Neither team netted a goal through regulation and two overtimes.
After 19 penalty kicks between the two teams, Stanford finally prevailed when UNC defender Alex Comisa skied the ball over the goal. With a 10–9 win over UNC, the Cardinal advanced to face Wake Forest on Sunday in the championship game.
On Sunday, Stanford fans probably thought they were seeing a replay of Friday night’s semifinal. Their team controlled possession for the first 30 minutes, outshooting Wake Forest 4–1 and gaining three corner opportunities. Momentum then shifted to Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacons put up three shots and a corner in seven minutes.
Neither team was able to put the ball in the net. And after a scoreless regulation, followed by two scoreless overtimes, the championship game went into a penalty shootout. Stanford prevailed 5–4 after Epstein saved Demon Deacon Hayden Partain’s shot attempt, setting up sudden death. Cardinal midfielder Sam Werner scored, and Epstein saved another shot, this time by Wake Forest midfielder Brad Dunwell, giving Stanford the win. It was the sixth national title game to go to penalty kicks.
Added Gunn, “Whether you win or lose the last game, all you can ever hope for is to work hard to just improve a little bit. That’s the way we’ve always looked at it, whether we’ve had success or whether we’ve failed, it’s just focusing on working hard and focusing on improving. Then we’ll have a happy life.”
Photographs by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images