July 16, 2004
After 17 years on the job, one would logically assume that head coach Jerry Smith has done everything he can for his Santa Clara program. However, the Broncos' first-ever preseason experience abroad will provide benefits that has the veteran leader excited on many fronts.
"In past years, we've played Notre Dame and Stanford early in the season, right after they've taken a foreign trip, and to see how far ahead they were in their season's progression makes me very excited about how much further ahead we could be as well," he said. "We could bring in our players a little early, train them and play them against international competition. It provides a good opportunity to really get ourselves ready for the NCAA Championship. We've gotten off to slow starts the previous two years, and this will allow us to a head start to the season. It will pay dividends at the most important time of the year, in November and December."
Smith approached his team about the foreign opportunity after the spring season, offering a week to travel to Costa Rica. The student-athletes agreed, on one condition: they didn't want to take this trip without the five new incoming players. Similar collegiate experiences usually take place in June or July, but NCAA rules prohibit newcomers from arriving on campus until August, so the Broncos delayed their trip to include the entire team.
"We had as close a group as I ever had at the end of spring," Smith said. "They are united in their approach in how they want the fall to progress and it's a testament to their veteran team chemistry that they didn't want to leave without the freshmen."
In addition to togetherness, this team knows how to win, and a successful attitude is a key to returning to the championship trophy to the Broncos.
"This senior group is unbelievable," Smith said. "They are determined to have a great year. They came in and won a national championship in their first year, and if it's alright with everybody else, they want to go out with an equally big bang. That brings a lot of energy to the team."
The depth of the team will also play a role in the team's success this fall. Smith said he played many of his student-athletes through injuries, due to lack of available substitutes. He rested many players during spring practices and in the fall, won't have to take as much risk because he has a quality bench with players who will be competing for starts through the entire season.
"Our team's health is always a concern, but less so this season because of our depth. That helps you stay healthy at the end of the year."
And now a look at the 2004 Broncos.
Sophomore All-American Julie Ryder and senior Alyssa Sobolik will compete for starts this season. Smith expects a healthy competition, as both know what they're battling for - being the team's starter in the NCAA Tournament. Ryder ranked 12th nationally last season in goals-against average and registered three shut outs in the postseason while becoming the first freshman goalkeeper to garner first-team All-West Coast Conference honors since 1997. Now with a year of collegiate experience and maturity under her belt, she will face three-year veteran Sobolik, who realizes the challenge and will be determined to earn her starts as a senior.
Carissa Amiral joins the program as a reserve, but will vie for occasional starts.
The Broncos graduated three players from last year's front line, but current seniors Bree Horvath and Megan Kakadelas will easily step in and lead a quintet of student-athletes. Horvath suffered a third ACL tear last season but is expected to be healthy for the fall, while Kakadelas also battled injuries through last season.
"There's a noticeable difference when Bree's not on the field for us and Megan will be even more impactful than she's ever been," Smith said.
Tina Estrada returns as another starter from last season. She earned Soccer Buzz West Region All-Freshman honors and scored big goals throughout the season. A preseason illness kept her off the field and Smith said that prevented Estrada from reaching her full potential. Described as the best pure finisher on the team, Estrada is expected to be a point leader for the Broncos this fall.
The midfield will be led by senior Leslie Osborne. She is the squad's only returning team captain, but missed spring training with the Broncos to work out with the National Team. Osborne is considered one of the best in the collegiate game and making the Olympic Team will have an impact on the Broncos.
"If she makes the team, she'll return to us without a break, and will go from one super-intense situation to another," Smith explained. "Additionally, anything after the Olympic Games tends to be a let down so psychologically finding the motivation to play will be a challenge."
A quartet of sophomores will also contribute. Marian Dalmy is an attacking midfielder, but could see time at forward, as that position is more suited to her style of play. Tiffany Roberts could also be an attacking midfielder, but spent the spring training as a holding midfielder, as she could be the heir apparent when Osborne graduates. Kelly Giddings returns from a redshirt season and will add depth to the midfield.
The fourth sophomore is WCC Freshman of the Year Lauren Zealear. She started last season in right back but found a home in the midfield. Smith described Zealear as the fittest player his program has ever seen and a player that always makes things happen. That talent could find Zealear join the forwards at times this fall.
Freshman Brittany Klein joins the program as the California State Player of the Year. Smith likened her abilities to former Bronco Aly Wagner, as Klein is a student of the game, and is a skillful passer, and could be a starter early in the season.
The defense is deep, with 10 players fighting for playing time. Senior and team captain Jessica Ballweg will be in center back. A defender with a wealth of attacking abilities, Smith said he feels he can't afford to experiment with her on the outside anymore, as that would leave the Broncos too vulnerable.
"Jess will be the single biggest key to our defending," he added.
Also centering the defense will be senior Lana Bowen. An outside back since her freshman season, Bowen is expected to fill the shoes of Chardonnay Poole, last year's enforcer. Bowen is described as a vocal leader and organized player that will successfully transition into her new role.
Junior Micaela Esquivel is another team captain for the 2004 Broncos, and will play in left back.
"Micaela already leads by example and I think the added responsibility of being a team captain will have a positive impact on her play, as she will respond and step up to the challenge. She is preparing to have her best season yet," Smith said.
Senior Monika Sola, juniors Carrie Schuler and Catherine Sigler, sophomores Bonnie Bowman, Elyse Shelger and Casey Pleas, and freshman Jordan Angeli round out the Bronco defense. All will add depth to the back line and vie for playing time in the right back. Shelger has been sidelined with injuries, but can play either outside position equally well, while Bowman and Pleas are described as prototypical utility players that will be able to fill in gaps in other field positions as well.
Santa Clara will aim for its 10th overall appearance in the College Cup this season and will prepare for the postseason with a 20-match schedule that features 10 programs that advanced to last year's NCAA Championship, including three of the top eight seeds.
For the first time since 1992, the Broncos will open the season with seven straight road contests.
"Playing a heavy road schedule early on is normal for us," Smith explained. "Sometimes there's a home game squeezed in there, but it really is by design, and for two reasons. First, we can travel in August without missing class time and therefore have more home games when the students are on campus and can fill our stands. Secondly, we can schedule NCAA Tournament teams and have a lot of fun road trips prior to the start of the fall quarter."
In the Broncos' first tournament, Notre Dame was the NCAA's No. 2 seed last season, while SMU was also a postseason participant. Santa Clara will remain in that part of the country for a tournament the following weekend, as Ballweg will lead the Broncos to her home state of New Jersey to take on NCAA participant Rutgers and Rhode Island.
"It's a section of the country that has some amazing young players as well as one of the best youth clubs in the country," Smith added. "It's wonderful for Jess to have this homecoming, and it's also an important opportunity for us to show off our team to an area of the country we've never taken our program before."
Additionally, the Broncos' preseason features four new opponents to the program, in Rutgers, Rhode Island, Yale and Denver, as well as three other teams Santa Clara has faced only once previously (SMU, CS Fullerton and Marquette).
"It is always interesting to play different teams from other parts of the country and find out what they are about," Smith said. "It adds another twist to our schedule, as we really won't know a lot about each team prior to meeting them on the field."
SCU will play three Pac-10 schools to close the non-conference season. The Broncos will host Stanford on September 30 and California on October 6, with a road trip to UCLA in between, on October 3. In West Coast Conference play, the Broncos will host San Diego, Portland and Pepperdine, all of whom advanced to the tournament last season.
"The conference is going to be very strong again this year," Smith cautioned. "Portland won the championship two years ago, but I think this next year, the Pilots are clearly going to be even stronger. We could get as many as five teams in the NCAA Tournament, as we did two years ago. And even the teams that haven't historically advanced have shown improvement. I just really don't think there are any easy games in this league; we boast one of the toughest conferences in the nation."