Stanford’s Andi Sullivan, South Carolina’s Savannah McCaskill aiming for the same ending

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Courtesy Stanford

Something stood out for one of Andi Sullivan’s older sisters after she watched Stanford’s quarterfinal win over Penn State in person over Thanksgiving.

It stood out more than the left-footed finish that gave the Cardinal an early two-goal lead.

Sullivan yells at people, her sister noted. Like, a lot.

Yeah, the Stanford captain acknowledged with a shrug, it happens. A lot.

"I think that could probably be surprising to her and a lot of the crowd," Sullivan said. "Because we were up 4-0."

It isn’t surprising to her teammates, the teammates who rarely use her first or last name when talking about her but instead use the nickname "Sunny." At least those teammates who don’t refer to her as "Mom," a nickname that predated her senior season by quite a bit. Neither nickname is ironic. She is affable, considerate and, well, as sunny a star as one is likely to encounter. She is also a ruthless perfectionist on the field, a player who has long seemed beyond her years.

She was the captain of a U.S. youth national team while its youngest player, a high schooler amid collegians. She was the Pac-12 freshman of the year and the choice of multiple outlets as national freshman of the year. She debuted for the national team as a junior at Stanford and returned to that starting lineup this fall, 10 months after surgery for a torn ACL.

Now in her final opportunity, one of college soccer’s all-time greats is two wins away from the championship that has eluded her in ways both literally and figuratively painful: a semifinal loss as a freshman, a quarterfinal shootout loss as a junior and that torn ACL in a second-round loss last fall.

"Sunny is the heart and soul of our team," Stanford junior Jordan DiBiasi said. "She has just been such a leader on and off the field. We all look up to her so much. … We want nothing more than to play with her for as long as possible and to win this for her."

Courtesy South Carolina Athletics

Senior Savannah McCaskill is hoping to leave her mark at South Carolina by winning the program’s first national championship.

Standing in the way Friday is a senior who took a different route to arrive at the same moment. Savannah McCaskill wasn’t the nation’s No. 1 recruit or a captain of national teams when she arrived at South Carolina. Nor was South Carolina, coming from a conference that at that time had sent only one program to the College Cup, akin to Stanford, the home of Julie Foudy, three Hermann Trophy winners, seven College Cups and a national title.

Friday, semifinals
Stanford vs. South Carolina, 5 p.m. ET (ESPNU/WatchESPN)
Duke vs. UCLA, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU/WatchESPN)

But now Sullivan and McCaskill meet on equal footing, each rewarding the trust of those who chose to follow them.

Stanford was the first No. 1 seed to bow out of last year’s NCAA tournament, but it wasn’t the only one to fall short of the College Cup. Hosting a quarterfinal for the first time after being the first SEC team to go through a regular season unbeaten, South Carolina lost to North Carolina. The Tar Heels went to their 27th College Cup. The Gamecocks had to wait yet another year to try to reach their first.

"In that moment, I thought it was our year to go to the final four," McCaskill said. "So it kind of ended abruptly."

The problem was that while McCaskill, coming off the program’s single-season record for goals (17), returned, the Gamecocks featured six senior starters a season ago. There is always optimism from the inside, but it seemed that a window of opportunity had closed. Realistically, preparing a young roster for its own title push down the road might have been the fate of this senior class.

Instead, South Carolina went undefeated in the SEC and again earned a No. 1 seed.

"We knew we were going to be a young team, so from the start we just made sure that they realized the expectations," said McCaskill, who has eight goals and nine assists this year. "We just tried to feed them as much information, what they were going to see going through the season, because we needed them. We needed them to come in right away. I definitely didn’t think that we would be undefeated in the SEC and win an SEC title right away. Being that young, you don’t really know what to expect."

Courtesy Stanford Andi Sullivan debuted with the U.S. national team as a junior.

Stanford might second that sentiment. Sullivan is the only player who will exhaust her eligibility this season. It was a young roster a season ago, too, which means many current sophomores and juniors are experienced, but still three freshmen started the quarterfinal against Penn State.

That team enters the College Cup 22-1-0, having outscored opponents 86-7. Three of those seven goals against were in an August game in which Sullivan played just 45 minutes.

When Sullivan makes herself heard, it is not to berate but to reinforce details to the youth around her. She had to learn how to do that, and then she had to almost learn all over again while coming back from the knee injury.

"You have to learn how to read people," Sullivan said. "You have to learn if that thing works for them or if they need something else. You can’t always be riding people. Not that I’m a negative person, but I can be very intense. So you have to learn when people need a boost or when you need to pull someone aside and have a conversation with them.

"There are definitely times I’m sure I’ve messed up, where I’m sure I’ve rubbed people the wrong way. But at the end of the day, if we’re getting things done, I know that long-term, they understand."

Earning that level of respect isn’t easy anywhere in Division I athletics, and that’s all the more true at a place such as Stanford. There, the people Sullivan has to listen to her were those used to doing the leading, self-motivated high-achievers. People such as DiBiasi, whose seven goals and 10 assists are part of the nation’s most prolific offense. She, too, played for youth national teams. She was a longtime captain for one of the most successful club programs in the country in Colorado.

"A huge thing is taking accountability and pushing herself," DiBiasi said. "If you see someone that is pushing themselves to be the best, is not accepting anything but their top effort, and you watch them doing that day in and day out, then you kind of have this mutual respect for them.

"Once that happens, you want to be like them."

Courtesy South Carolina Athletics It appeared to be a rebuilding year, but Savannah McCaskill and South Carolina went 19-2-1.

Which brings us back to the player on the other sideline, whose lead South Carolina followed to Orlando. Gamecocks coach Shelley Smith will tell you that she built her program on players who were overlooked or undervalued by the ACC giants or SEC rivals that surround the state. A local product who grew up about 20 miles from Columbia, McCaskill was a top-100 recruit. She wasn’t a complete unknown. But Smith includes her in the mold. McCaskill wasn’t expected to become the talisman of a national title contender, a player with 40 goals and 34 assists in her career.

"She’s always been gifted technically, and tactically she’s always read the game so well," Smith said. "She’s always been a little bit above players around her. She sees the game that much faster, she studies the game, and she soaks it all in. I think what she’s done is she’s matured as a player. Her work rate, her dedication to being the best athlete she can be has grown over her years. She really completely changed her eating habits, her sleeping. She’s done everything she can to maximize what she can do on the field. That’s been a big difference.

"She’s also learned to deal with frustrations. That’s part of growing up, too, right?"

McCaskill assumed growing up that she would play in the ACC, long the dominant conference in college soccer. What appealed to her in the end was the chance to build something new.

"I’d like to think I left my mark on the program," McCaskill said. "It’s definitely not just me that did that. My whole senior class made an impact on this program, and every single senior class before me has helped us get to where we are and has built that legacy that South Carolina is now known for. But definitely I’d like to think I’m leaving my jersey better than I found it."

That is true of both senior stars in Friday’s first semifinal. It will remain true no matter which emerges with a chance to lead her team to a national championship.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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