Jan. 17, 2002
By Josh Griffin
The Santa Clara
While many components came together in the Santa Clara women's soccer national championship run, the school could at least send a thank you card to the Central Valley Youth Soccer Club. As winner of three consecutive national age group championships, the Mercury honed the skills of seven players who played in this year's NCAA College Cup, including Santa Clara's three main cogs - senior defenders Danielle Slaton and Anna Kraus, and redshirt junior midfielder Aly Wagner.
The freshman class of 1998, featuring Slaton, Kraus, Wagner, and midfielder Kerry Cathcart, may be remembered forever as the class that brought Santa Clara the elusive national championship. The notion of such great talent coming together to play for a local school seems far-fetched, and coming down to the wire of the recruiting period, it seemed just as outrageous.
The first to commit to Santa Clara was Kraus who, coming out of a successful career at Saint Francis High School of Mountain View, chose the Mission Campus over Portland and Stanford. Kraus was determined to stay on the west coast, and only took three official visits (out of five allowed by the NCAA).
After Kraus came the surprising news that Slaton would turn down a dream of playing for the Tar Heels of North Carolina - the same North Carolina of 16 national championships, as well as the same North Carolina who Santa Clara defeated for its first ever national championship last month. While Santa Clara now claims a 2-13 all-time record against the Tar Heels, Santa Clara may have gained its first ever victory over UNC in luring Slaton to stay at home.
The final piece to the puzzle came when Wagner, who also played with Slaton at Presentation High School of San Jose, had a surprise change of heart, and chose the Broncos over Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia and Stanford, with Notre Dame as the runner-up.
"I felt going to a school like North Carolina would be the easy way out, and that I'd probably win a national championship there, but it wouldn't mean very much. I wanted to help a program achieve its first national championship," Wagner said from South Carolina, the day after netting a goal and an assist for Team USA in a 7-0 over Mexico, in which Slaton was a starting defender. Mission accomplished.
The threesome met some adversity in their opening years at Santa Clara, with disappointing finishes in 1998 and 1999, as well as injury problems. Wagner missed her freshman year recovering from a torn ACL in her left knee, and all three players missed substantial playing time due to injuries in the 2000 season. All the disappointment was washed away with this year's triumph, which included the national title and player of the year awards from SoccerBuzz, Soccer America and Honda, as well as first team All-America and academic All-America honors.
"Our team had so much heart, and everyone was there as a team, not as individuals. Additionally, with our tough schedule, we were put in a situation this year where we knew what to do in close games," Kraus said in pointing out the differences between past seasons and this year.
Wagner was a little more direct. "I felt it this year. I knew we would win [the national championship]. Everyone was playing for each other, and there was no selfishness. I felt in past years that the team really did not need me to come through in big games, and that definitely has affected my play," Wagner added.
All three took on new roles as leaders, and felt that it was important to bring the freshmen into the team as quickly as possible. This year's team featured ten freshmen on its roster of 22, and goalie Alyssa Sobolik, defenders Lana Bowen and Jessica Ballweg, midfielder Leslie Osborne, and forwards Bree Horvath and Taline Tahmassian all started the national championship game. Defender Holly Azevedo played a major role off the bench as well.
"In most team sports, the upperclassmen usually don't treat the freshmen too well," Kraus added. "On this team, we were all really close to the freshmen and team chemistry off the field was better than in past years."
Wagner shared the same sentiments. "We tried to lead by example and made an effort to relate to the younger players, taking them under our wing. We did a great job helping them assimilate into the team concept," Wagner added.
As their run together concluded on the ninth of December in Dallas, Wagner, Kraus and Slaton all have promising soccer futures. Kraus and Slaton will participate in the WUSA College All-Star camp in February, and both are likely high draft picks in the WUSA draft on Feb. 12. Wagner will return to Santa Clara as the only returning All-American and a preeminent favorite for every postseason player of the year award in her attempts to claim another national championship without Slaton and Kraus.
Wagner will not be alone. Soccer Buzz named six Broncos to their All-West regional team, four of whom will return next year. In addition to Wagner, sophomore midfielder Veronica Zepeda, junior midfielder Devvyn Hawkins and Osborne were recognized. The team will return six players who gained all-WCC recognition - Wagner, Zepeda, Osborne, Hawkins, Ballweg and Horvath.
More significant than the accolades is the experience of winning the elusive national title. In their seven previous appearances in the NCAA College Cup, Santa Clara, who often was the favorite going in, never reached the final.