October 3, 2000

Three Broncos To Play On Olympic Women's Soccer Team

Sept. 14, 2000

Dwight Chapin
SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, SENIOR WRITER

JERRY SMITH is used to being introduced as "Mr. Brandi Chastain," which doesn't bother him because he knows his wife is not only a world-class soccer player but also owns the world's most famous sports bra.

Smith, however, deserves a moment or two in the spotlight on his own, heading into the 2000 Olympics.

Two of his Santa Clara University women's soccer players, Nikki Serlenga and Danielle Slaton, have joined Chastain, an assistant coach with the Broncos, on the U.S. national team that will play in Sydney.

And another of Smith's Santa Clara products, Aly Wagner, has been named a first alternate for the American Olympic squad.

"I've said several times that I would love to have won a national (college) championship last year," Smith said, "but even if we had, I'd be more proud to have so many players involved with the national team."

There's no question that Smith, who is in his 14th season at Santa Clara, has been a major factor in all of this.

"I learned a lot from Jerry and the other players at Santa Clara," said budding international star Serlenga, who was a senior at the school last season.

And Slaton, who will rejoin the Broncos as a junior at the conclusion of the Olympics, said, "Jerry is a great coach. He's done everything a coach can do in helping me pursue my dreams. And Santa Clara has a great program. Being part of it has helped me grow and develop so much, as a player and as a person."

Smith believes the success of the Santa Clara soccer products "speaks to a number of things - their passion and dedication to the sport, their work ethic and their commitment."

And he mentioned something else that might seem a little strange.

"Their bravery," he said. "Back when they were making the decision where to go to college, most people thought there was only one school, North Carolina, to go to if you wanted to play for the national championship. I really applaud these kids for their bravery in deciding that it was best for their development to come here.

"All that we really promised them was our best effort in helping them reach their potential. But I think the players understood that we were very committed to being the very best we could be, too."

Still, the really blue-chip,

Olympic caliber athletes didn't begin to arrive at Santa Clara until the last few seasons.

"Now, we have a standard," Smith said. "Kids in our program are here because they want to work as hard as they can to reach their potential. They don't want to go places and be the only ones with those sorts of aspirations. They know they won't be the only ones here."

Smith is not surprised that the 20-year-old Slaton and Serlenga joined the veteran Chastain on the U.S. roster.

"The real surprise to me is that Aly Wagner is not on the roster," he said. "And an even bigger surprise is that Mandy Clemens, who won all three major player of the year awards last year, is not a part of the U.S. team's residency training.

"But I think Mandy will get a chance. She's kind of a late bloomer. And only two 'field' players who were not on the 1999 Women's World Cup team were allocated to the next professional league that will start play next year. One is Nikki Serlenga. The other is Mandy Clemens."

Serlenga, who may start for the Olympic team at central midfielder, has been drawing raves all around.

U.S. coach April Heinrichs said, "She has the most uncanny ability to step into the most pressurized situations and have great composure on the ball. Pound for pound (she's 5-foot-6 and weighs 130), she strikes the ball better than any female soccer player I've ever seen."

"She's the best all-around player I've ever coached, and one of the most complete players I've ever seen," Smith said. "She can do anything. She's a wonderful defensive player and a wonderful attacking player. She's absolutely 'two-footed.' She can score goals, head the ball. So's so solid technically she can swing harder on a ball, sort of like Tiger Woods in golf."

The 22-year-old Serlenga, who has been playing soccer since she was four or five years old, said she was recruited "pretty highly" coming out of San Pasqual high in Mission Beach, but was not an immediate hit as a college soccer player.

"My freshman year I was kind of just going through the motions," she said. "Not a lot of people sat up and took notice. I always knew I was capable of playing at the level where I am now. It's not a surprise to me, because I've kind of gotten overlooked a lot. Because I didn't have a big name, I've had to prove myself - twice or three times."

"But I think I'm really doing that now under coach Heinrichs. She's a wonderful coach and she has the same personality I do. She tells it like it is."

Slaton, who prepped at Presentation High in San Jose, is the youngest player on the U.S. team - and the only one still in college

- but is wise beyond her years.

"She is an amazing kid," Smith said. "So much a leader. On last year's (Santa Clara) team, we had six outstanding seniors, but when the captains were selected, she was one of them, along with Serlenga, even though she was only a sophomore. When I announced to the team that she was one of the captains, the reaction was, 'Well, of course she is.'

"There are a lot of fabulous athletes out there, but on the mental side Danielle is truly as solid as it comes. The mental side of her game could not be any better. She is absolutely dedicated and focused."

Smith said that focus is not confined to the soccer field.

"She's well-versed in a lot of things," she said. "She would be as comfortable in a room with Santa Clara University Board of Trustees as she would out on a dance floor on a Friday night."

Slaton has a long association with Heinrichs, too, having played as a defender and captained the U.S. under-16 national team when Heinrichs was its coach.

But she's still a bit wide-eyed over where she's performing for Heinrichs now.

"Going to the Olympics is a dream come true," she said. "I started getting into national programs in 1996 but I didn't know how good my chances were going to be. There are so many good soccer players in the country.

"I never thought for sure I would make it, but I knew if I kept working hard, I'd have a chance. Now that it's reality, it's amazing."

Which is a word that could just as easily be used to describe what's happened to the Santa Clara women's soccer program lately.