SAN DIEGO -- The formula for top-ranked Stanford's success in women's soccer can be traced to the Rodin Sculpture Garden on campus.
So says the John Wooden of the sport.
North Carolina's Anson Dorrance said Thursday the Cardinal's rise to the top of the soccer world is because of its academic prestige, and yes, those eerie Rodin originals at the Cantor Arts Center that add an element of stature to the campus.
"We go head-to-head with Stanford in recruiting, and we rarely beat them," said Dorrance, whose team plays Stanford in the College Cup semifinals Friday night at Torero Stadium. The winner will advance to Sunday's title game against either Florida State or Penn State.
But it has taken more than famous French artwork for the reigning champion Cardinal (21-1-1) to reach its fifth consecutive College Cup -- soccer's version of the Final Four.
A senior-heavy team anchored by sturdy defenders Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon has given Stanford a strong backbone, if not a bona fide scoring threat such as past Cardinal stars Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press and Teresa Noyola.
Now the Cardinal will face a school it has never defeated in 11 games (0-8-3). The Tar Heels are playing in their 26th Cup and have won 20 of 30 NCAA crowns.
Dorrance, who started Carolina's program in 1979, wishes he had some of those Stanford players.
"This field we are playing is littered with my recruiting failures," said Dorrance, who considered coming to Stanford after guiding the U.S. women's national team to its first World Cup title in 1991.
"It was so tempting," he recalled. "Recruiting there would have been like shooting fish in a barrel."
Despite Stanford's recent success, virtually no one expects any school to duplicate Dorrance's dominance in Chapel Hill from 1982 to 2009.
With better players coming out of high school and the growth of the women's game internationally, the field of competition has expanded to the point where another Carolina-like reign seems improbable.
"I don't think that would ever be replicated," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said Thursday.
By any measure, though, the current Cardinal run has been impressive. Stanford is one of eight schools to reach at least six College Cups. Notre Dame has done it 12 times, Santa Clara 10 times.
"He did something everybody said couldn't be done," Denver coach Jeff Hooker said of Ratcliffe. "He had vision, and he's still going with it."
When surveying the season, Notre Dame's Randy Waldrum thought at least 15 schools had a shot of winning the championship "and nobody would bat an eye."
North Carolina (13-5-3) wasn't at the top of anyone's list. The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seeded team but reached its first College Cup since defeating Stanford for the national title in 2009.
Dorrance downplayed all of his success by saying Carolina's past is irrelevant to Friday night's game.
"I never had any feeling this streak will go on forever," he said. "All it does is put additional pressure on the players. I never want them to feel that. I want my girls to play with a kind of freedom. I want them to go out there and show how well they can play."
Not to feel sorry for the Tar Heels, who boast some of the country's most promising talent. Four Carolina players have scored seven goals each. U.S. under-20 defender Crystal Dunn has five goals in four tournament games while playing center midfielder.
"It's hard to say the days of Carolina are over when Carolina is sitting in the room with us right now," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said.
Cardinal senior Mariah Nogueira, though, would like to add another notch to Stanford's growing resume at the Tar Heels' expense.
"I'd love to be part of the first team to beat North Carolina," she said.
Follow Elliott Almond at twitter.com/elliottalmond.