Aug. 5, 2003
Out of 287 Division I women's soccer programs, only one has reached the College Cup at least 10 times, and that is North Carolina, who has actually participated in each of the 21 National Championships. However, right behind the Tar Heels are the Santa Clara University Broncos, who will aim for their own milestone this season by trying to become only the second program to appear in a 10th College Cup, a mark of consistency that 16-year head coach Jerry Smith is very proud of.
"I believe we are positioning ourselves to be the top women's program in the country, and that is something that is important to our program," Smith emphasized. "I wouldn't blame those who doubt that, but if you look at who the No. 1 players drafted to the WUSA are, the number of players in the National Team camp that played in college in the last five years, our three consecutive wins against North Carolina, and our top-rated recruiting class coming in this fall, I think we are annually adding to the argument that we are one of the top college programs in the country."
To keep the argument alive for the 2003, Smith will have to answer critics' calls as to how to replace U.S. National Team starter Aly Wagner and fellow All-American Devvyn Hawkins, star midfielders for the Broncos the past four seasons who are now both playing professionally in the WUSA. Smith's answer: you don't.
"You don't replace Aly and Devvyn, just as you don't Danielle Slaton, Nikki Serlenga, Mandy Clemens and Brandi Chastain," he explained. "You figure out something in terms of a new approach. Aly is already dubbed by many as the best passer in women's international soccer, so players like that don't come along very often. But we do have other players that can and will step up for us."
One of those student-athletes is junior Leslie Osborne, who received her first National Team call-up this past summer. A pair of seniors in Chardonnay Poole and Veronica Zepeda will also play major roles, as will the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, as tabbed by Soccer America and Soccer Buzz magazines.
"One of the strengths on our team next year is depth," Smith added. "We will have other players step up in their own way, and whereas we did it with one or two players in the past, maybe now it is more of a group effort. We have more depth on our team than we have had since the '99 season. From a coaching perspective there is no substitution for that. It allows us to go into the season-although without Aly and Devvyn-very optimistic about how good we can be."
"Either of those two positions require a tremendous amount of leadership and communication and organization, which are Chardy's strengths," Smith said.
The other starter in the senior class is Zepeda. Hampered by injuries her first three seasons, Zepeda played her first 90-minute game for SCU just a little over halfway through her junior season and then played several games at the end of 2002 close to 90 minutes. An All-American despite the injuries, the talented dribbler could set new limits for herself if she can come into preseason injury free and relatively fit.
The other two seniors, Kristi Candau and Tracy Hess, are not guaranteed starting spots, but will both contribute. Hess in her second season with Santa Clara and will offer quite a bit of athleticism to the team, as she is quick, fast, strong and a very aggressive player.
"When she comes into a game, she adds a spark to our team, so most likely, she will be somebody who comes off the bench and helps us with our forward line," Smith said.
Candau, who has led the team in goals in two of her three seasons, was diagnosed with an injury in her right leg and underwent surgery in the summer. Her return for the season is uncertain, and Smith said he looks forward to her contributing again during the season.
"Kristi has always been one of our best goal scorers," Smith said. "Not having her at the beginning of the season and potentially not having her at 100 percent for any part of the season certainly will impact our team's ability to score goals."
The junior class packs a powerful punch, as all six returnees were starters last season. A seventh junior, Monika Sola, will join the team after transferring from Texas and will compete for time at the center back. A Bay Area native, she played club soccer with two current Bronco teammates and should easily adapt to SCU's program.
Smith describes Osborne as the team's best all-around player. Seen at all positions last season, the 2002 team points leader (32) could replace Hawkins as the holding midfielder, Wagner as the attacking midfielder, or stay in her current role as forward.
"Typically, when you find players as well rounded as Leslie you'd like them to play in your midfield because they can have a bigger impact on the game" Smith explained. "But when you find players with Leslie's scoring ability, you like them to play up front. She's just very good at a lot of things, which is a nice problem to have; she will certainly have a tremendous impact on our team."
"Jess is a starter, key player, leader, but we haven't quite sorted out where she's going to play," Smith said. "We'd like her to play on the right side where she can go forward and score and assist on goals as she did in her freshman year, but if we had a situation where one of the best attackers on our opponents' team were in a one-on-one with one of our defenders, we'd like it to be Jess. She's the best at that."
Kakadelas is in her second year with the Broncos, after transferring from USC following her freshman season. The team leader in assists, with 14 in 2002, Kakadelas will again be one of the top three points leaders for the Broncos.
Two-time All-WCC standout Bree Horvath offers many intangibles for Smith's squad and the head coach said fans will not see large periods of the game without Horvath on the field. One of the best defensive forwards Smith knows, he said Horvath's strength comes in causing goals by her defensive ability, and cited one of the team's biggest goals of last season, the game-winner at Portland. Lana Bowen has been the Broncos starting left back for the past two years, despite it not being her natural position. Smith said Bowen will have an impact in the starting lineup, but could see time at a more natural position for her.
Goalkeeper Alyssa Sobolik rounds out the junior class. As the starter for most of the past two seasons (with a career 0.72 GAA), she will again compete for that lead role. Challenging her will be a freshman, but Sobolik had a strong spring season and dedicated her summer to continued improvement.
Sophomore Micaela Esquivel leads a class of seven, with three newcomers to the program. Esquivel earned Freshman All-America honors from Soccer America after a strong rookie campaign. She played right back most of the year, despite never playing that position previously. This season, Esquivel will return to her natural position in the midfield. Another midfielder, Kelly Giddings, will redshirt the season, after dislocating her right knee during a spring scrimmage and undergoing two operations during the summer.
The three additions to the sophomore class include Cat Sigler, a transfer from Notre Dame who earned All-Big East Conference honors. From nearby Santa Rosa, the center back is described by Smith as a strong tackler with good heading abilities who should compete for a starting role. Kristin Kinder and Andrea Roozen joined the team during the spring and will train at the defense.
Redshirt freshman Bonnie Bowman has recovered from ACL surgery and proved herself to be one of the hardest working student-athletes on the roster. Another tough defender with power and heading ability, she will compete for time at the center back.
The six true freshman Smith and his staff have brought to the Mission Campus have been tabbed by Soccer America and Soccer Buzz magazines as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Smith said all six will compete for starting positions. They include Marian Dalmy of Lakewood, Colo.; Tina Estrada of Fremont, Calif.; Tiffany Roberts of Phoenix, Ariz.; Julie Ryder of DeKalb, Ill.; Elyse Shelger of Sugarland, Texas; and Lauren Zealear of Nevada City, Calif.
Dalmy will compete at forward or an attacking midfield position, while Estrada is a true forward. Smith said Estrada has the ability to score the big goals in a match and will score many times for the Broncos this fall.
Roberts has been likened by Smith to Osborne, a player who can see action anywhere.
"Tiffany is a great wildcard for us to have," he said. "We'll move her around to different positions but she will play a lot for us this fall."
Ryder is a member of the U19 National Team and has a great kicking game for a keeper. Smith said her punts, goal kicks and ability to play with the ball at her feet are exceptional. With a wealth of experience for an incoming player, Ryder will challenge Sobolik for a starting role between the pipes.
Shelger is the team's other naturally left-footed player and will compete for a role in the defense, while Zealear is one of the few high school players to attend almost every U21 National Team camp and will compete for time at right fullback. Smith said Zealear could have a similar impact on the team as Esquivel did last fall.
"I think that is saying quite a bit," Smith conceded. "Micaela was a freshman All-American and I think Lauren has that potential."
"There are a lot of good players that won't start, and a lot of good players that won't play as much as they'd like to," he explained. "Seven new players on the team could be starters. There could be some uneasiness and how those seven players handle playing in front of older, more experienced players, and how those older players accept the new players on our team are dynamics you can't always control. Those areas on our team have always been strong, but I think this season will test those traits. It's a double-edge sword and hopefully we know how to handle it."
Another question mark the team will face is the replacing the leadership Wagner and Hawkins gave the program.
"I know with Aly and Devvyn, they were never intimidated by any opponent, or by the goal of winning a national championship. In fact, I think they expected it," Smith said. "Leadership is key to being successful. Whether or not we will have players on our team with those expectations, and meet the challenges that playing in the biggest matches of the season with the same type of enthusiasm that Aly and Devvyn had will be keys for us. We have very good leaders on our team, but are they going to be able to lead us in the most crucial times that I know Aly and Devvyn always looked forward to? I believe we have those leaders on our team, but it will only be at the end of the season that we'll know that... because that's when it really counts."
A third challenge the team will face is playing with only two keepers on the roster. Erin Pearson decided not to return to the team in order to make a heavier commitment to her true passion, singing.
"That makes me a little nervous," Smith said. "Should we take an injury or two, it is not far-fetched to think that we may end up in some game with a field player in goal, which is a ridiculous situation to be in, particularly with a team that has the potential our team has."
To avoid that, Pearson has agreed to be an emergency backup, and although won't be training, is willing to rejoin the team if such an unusual situation arises.
"I was and our whole team was very supportive of Erin's decision, recognizing where her real passion lies," Smith said. "It is hard for anyone to make a full-time commitment to academics, a full-time commitment to athletics and a full-time commitment to a singing career, which I think she will have, and something had to give."
"One of the things that has always helped us in playing our best soccer at the end of each fall is the being unafraid of experiment thing in the early part of the season and we will do that again next year," he added. "With eight new players joining us in the fall, we'll have to do experimenting again anyway."
Additionally, the Broncos will be playing their season during the World Cup. Smith said he sees that as nothing but positive for women's soccer.
"Our biggest crowds were '99," he added. "We had a great team, but it was also on the heels of the women's World Cup. I think with the World Cup final being somewhere in the middle of October, that still give us the end of October and then all through the playoffs for fans to get even more excited about women's soccer and wanting to see more matches, and come to our games and fill up our stadium."
Santa Clara will aim for its 10th overall appearance in the College Cup this season with a 20-match schedule that features 12 programs that advanced to last year's NCAA Championship, including four of the top eight seeds. The Broncos will host eight of those matches at Buck Shaw Stadium.
"It's a great motivator to know that you're playing a great team in the first game at home in front of a great crowd, and if you're not very good, you're going to get embarrassed. After our loss to Stanford to start last season, our team has been motivated by that thought this spring, and will carry it through the summer and into preseason."
SCU will also host 2002 NCAA teams California, Notre Dame and USC. In West Coast Conference play, the Broncos will host Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Portland, all of whom also advance to the tournament last season.
"From start to finish, we're playing the most talented teams in the country on our home field," Smith said. "It will force us to be sharp each week of the season and that can only help us as we aim for the NCAA Tournament."
The road schedule will also be a challenge, with the Broncos facing NCAA participants Virginia, Penn State and Stanford during the non-conference season and San Diego during WCC play. Santa Clara will end its regular season on the road for only the fourth time in the last 10 seasons, when it visits Gonzaga on Nov. 8. Smith pointed out that with his team being the national champions in 2001 and the runners-up in 2002, the target on the Broncos' back hasn't gotten any smaller.
"People are still looking at us as a team they are going to need to beat if they are going to be serious at winning a national championship," he explained. "Teams like Penn State and Virginia have the talent to do that. That weekend will be a tough test for us on the road.
"The Pac-10 and WCC are the two top conferences in the country for women's soccer and it's been fun to be a part of that shift," he said. "Just playing in our conference will present tremendous challenges for us. Our conference sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, with two playing for the championship... that speaks very highly for the competitive nature of our league. If our non-conference schedule doesn't beat us up enough, our conference schedule will; but again, the benefit of playing a schedule like that, is that all of your weaknesses have been exposed and you should be battled-tested for an NCAA Championship run."
A run that begins the weekend of November 14 with the NCAA first and second rounds.