Sept. 26, 2001
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith signed eight freshmen for the 2001 season, the largest recruiting class in the program's history. Six games into the season, those freshmen are already coming up big for the Broncos, three of them rank in the top five in scoring. Smith calls midfielder Leslie Osborne and defender Jessica Ballweg the "total package."
"Those kids are winners," he said. "They're both kind of the total package. The most important thing when I look at players is the psychological side. Things like determination, competitiveness, will to win, focus and concentration, and coachability are crucial, and in all of those things, they're both very good.
"They both have a passion for the game, they both work at their game really hard, and they're both self-motivated, which is evidenced by how far they've already come, having played for the U.S. They've played for the U.S. for a while now. A lot of those kids they came in with on the U-16 team aren't with the national team program anymore. I think that shows great determination, commitment, and passion on their part."
Osborne has won a starting role and has already tallied three goals and three assists, good for second on the team in scoring behind Aly Wagner. The 18-year-old has wanted to attend Santa Clara since she was in eighth grade and in fact committed on the first recruiting trip she ever took.
"They started to do well in 1997 and 1998," said Osborne, who hails from Menomonee Falls, Wisc. "I followed them and just loved to watch them play. I think Jerry's one of the best, most well-known coaches there is. He knows so much about the game, and I need to learn so much more. I like his system and I wanted to get away from the Midwest. It was a pretty easy decision, I never took any of my other visits."
A Parade and NSCAA All-American at Catholic Memorial High School, Osborne was also named the Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year and led her school to a No. 1 national ranking and two state championships.
Smith calls her extreme versatility an important asset for the Broncos.
"Leslie may be one of the most complete players we have on our team," he said. "If we had to rank players in their ability to play any of the 10 field positions, she would rank in the top two on our team. She won't be as good at a defensive position as Danielle Slaton, maybe, or not as good in the midfield as Aly or Devon (Hawkins), but she can play very well in any position we put her in."
Ballweg grew up in Metuchen, N.J. and was named the Parade National Defender of the Year in 2001. She, too, earned the starting nod and lines up at right back. She is fifth on the team in scoring with one goal, which was the game-winner against Wake Forest on Sept. 7, and two assists. She turned down Notre Dame, Virginia, Penn State, and UConn and exchanged the East Coast for Northern California.
"It was overall the best fit for me," she said. "I liked the team, the coaches, the school-just the whole combination. Once I took all my visits, I knew that I liked Santa Clara the best."
A Parade All-American while attending Union Catholic Regional High School, Ballweg won New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, Star Ledger New Jersey Player of the Year, and NSCAA New Jersey Player of the Year accolades.
Though playing stellar defense for the Broncos, she has proven she can also be effective in an attacking role.
"Jessica is a tough, tenacious defender who also has a lot of attacking game," Smith said. "In our system of play, we put a heavy burden on our backs to be able to able to playmake, to make good attacking plays, and Jessica does that for us. She offers as much in attack as she does defensively for us."
Osborne and Ballweg were fortunate enough not to be faced with the overwhelming transition of starting college with which many incoming freshman are forced to deal. Though they admit that they have had to make some adjustments, their experience with the U.S. Under-19 national team has helped immensely.
"We play at a high level on the national team, too, so we knew some of what to expect," Osborne said. "Also, we've traveled so much with (the U-19s), and we're used to the constant meetings (Jerry) has all the time. Since he's a national team coach too (Smith coaches the U-21 national team), we're used to a lot of what he does."
"We're mentally used to being away from home and playing away games, so it's been easier adjusting to that," added Ballweg.
Though they are still getting used to a new system of play, they have settled in quite productively, as evidenced in their statistics. Santa Clara is ranked 10th in the nation with a 5-1 record and are looking towards the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament as the ultimate culmination of their season.
But even after the college season comes to an end in early December, Osborne and Ballweg don't get much of a break. Instead of settling into a spring season of training and playing the occasional game, they will be spending a great deal of time with the U-19s, earnestly preparing for the first-ever FIFA Under-19 Youth Championship, which takes place in June 2002 in Canada.
"In February we go to Mexico, and in March we (will participate in) the WUSA pre-season," Osborne said. "April and May are the qualifying rounds, so we basically have one event per month. We really have a full schedule ahead."
© womenssoccer.com 2001