Julie Johnston Will Again Direct Traffic For WCC Title Favorites Santa Clara
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WCC – BYU | Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | Portland | San Diego | San Francisco | St. Mary’s (CA)
Poised perfectly for their first league title since 2006 and a potential deep run into the NCAA Tournament, it all went horribly wrong for Santa Clara in November. With the WCC title on the line against San Diego in the regular season finale, the Broncos crashed and crashed hard, losing 3-0 in a shocking capitulation that dropped them to third in the league. Things would go from bad to worse the following week, as Santa Clara were bounced from the NCAA Tournament on penalties after a 1-1 draw against a Cal team they had thumped in the regular season, 3-0.
It was the latest set of setbacks for a program still in search of its title winning mojo from years gone by. Santa Clara were once the giants of Bay Area soccer but has found their role as queens of Camino Real usurped in recent years by fierce local rivals Stanford. Head coach Jerry Smith has mountains of wins and a national title to his name but has seen local supremacy slip through his fingers with the rise of the Cardinal. The Broncos were a constant on the national scene for the entirety of the nineties and into the first half of the first decade of the new millennium. SCU first hit the College Cup in 1989 and would make it back six more times without making it into the title game.
In the meantime, Santa Clara would also collect four WCC league trophies before making the breakthrough in 2001. Behind the goals of Aly Wagner, Leslie Osborne, and Veronica Zepeda, the Broncos would finally bury the ghosts of the past and overcome their lovable loser tag in the College Cup, topping Florida in a 3-2 thriller before finally taking down North Carolina in the final, 1-0. SCU so nearly made it back-to-back titles one season later, beating Carolina again in the semi-finals but ultimately falling to WCC arch-rivals Portland after extra time in the final.
The Broncos would take the slightest of steps back over the next few seasons, being knocked out in the Elite Eight in 2003 and 2005 by North Carolina and Penn State respectively and losing in the semi-finals to Notre Dame in 2004. Santa Clara’s four year WCC league title streak would also end in 2005, though the program would regain the crown in 2006. 2006 would also mark a turning point in the history of the Broncos program. Smith’s side would be stunned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by USC, resulting in the program’s first time in the Big Dance without at least one win since 1994. It was also the first time that SCU hadn’t won two matches in the NCAA Tournament since 1994 and the first time the program hadn’t won three matches in the NCAA Tournament since 1995. In short, it was a major shock and one that would be repeated the season after as the Broncos were dumped out by Cal in a 2-0 defeat.
Santa Clara also lost their WCC title that season and have yet to gain it back. If the relative horrors of 2006 and 2007 seemed bad to Broncos fans, 2008 must’ve been their worst nightmare come to life. Besieged by injuries and a toothless offense that scored just sixteen goals in twenty matches, SCU slumped to a shocking 4-12-4 record, the program’s first losing season since 1983. With the natives undoubtedly beginning to get a little restless in the Bay Area, Smith was able to turn the ship around somewhat in 2009. There were still losses to the likes of Utah and San Diego, and the Broncos were humiliated by Stanford in the regular season, 6-2, at home, but SCU also won fourteen matches and got back to the Sweet Sixteen before being trumped by the Cardinal once more.
2010 was then looked upon as another opportunity for the Broncos to take another step back towards being a force on the national stage. Non-conference play was mostly forgettable, with the exception of a win over Georgetown. Smith’s side rolled through the first half of WCC play though, winning their first four league matches before falling to their arch-rivals at Portland once more, all but conceding the title. Losing their last two all but doomed them in the NCAA Tournament though, as they ended up in Stanford’s region again. Truthfully, they were a little lucky to earn a rematch with the Card, having been outplayed by Long Beach State but having squeezed through. They’d give Stanford a good game but fell in the end to their local rivals.
While nobody was likely to confuse 2011′s unit with the club’s title team, they still were very talented and looked to be capable of making noise on a national scale. Early on, SCU struggled though, going five without a win after winning their first three. Granted, four of those results were draws, and all five were against teams finishing in the uRPI Top 100, but it was still unsettling to see the Broncos go so late in the season without a quality win. They solved that problem on a single weekend, beating Washington State and Cal before recording a decent win in a blowout over San Diego State the following weekend.
The Broncos really hit a groove as league play began though, going unbeaten in their first seven, including a draw with title rivals BYU, a win over arch-rivals Portland (their first since 2006), and a win over Pepperdine which put their title fate in their own hands on the final day of the regular season. The rest would be regrettable history for Smith and his program who now found their trophy drought at half a decade and who are 2-4-2 in the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Santa Clara may still be a consistent Top 25 team, but it appears that the days of the Broncos rubbing shoulders with the national elite have long since passed.
Hope springs eternal though, and Santa Clara’s best chance of snapping that trophy drought might be this year, with what looks like a very talented squad on paper returning to do battle in the WCC. First Team All-American Julie Johnston may be missing the first month or so of the season on international duty as the U.S. U20 World Cup team’s captain but should be one of the nation’s very best when she returns in September. Defining Johnston’s exact role isn’t easy though, considering the junior can essentially play anywhere on the pitch. Though she’ll be in defense in Japan this August, Johnston lined up often in attack last year and showed quite the nose for goal, scoring nine times to lead the club.
She could form a deadly duo up top with fellow early absentee Sofia Huerta, who will represent Mexico in Japan this August. Huerta was originally recruited as a defender but was instead a deadly weapon in front of goal last year, scoring eight times as a rookie. The question of course is if Santa Clara can score enough goals until the duo returns a month into the season. They’ll have to turn on the offense, because the club loses a pair of starting defenders, along with Third Team All-American goalkeeper Bianca Henninger. An outstanding goalkeeper who proved to be as talented as any in the last decade in the college ranks, Henninger kept her side in just about every game and was desperately unfortunate to end her career with a paucity of winner’s medals to her name. While Smith has a long line of potential replacements to choose from, emulating Henninger’s heroics will be a difficult task for the new netminder.
Henninger departs after a sterling career for the Broncos that featured being named an All-American twice, with the 2010 U20 World Cup Golden Glove Award to her name as well. A commanding figure in net with tremendous shot stopping ability, Henninger has also cut her teeth at U23 level for the U.S. and could be one to watch in the future at senior level. Having been the club’s first choice for the past three seasons, Henninger leaves a void of inexperience in her wake, though Smith will get to choose from three options to try and fill the breach.
While stepping into the starting role after Henninger is an unenviable task, junior Molly Mettler would appear to be the most experienced option for the Broncos. After redshirting as a rookie in 2010, Mettler was much more involved last season, seeing time in seven matches and not conceding a single goal. The Portland native even managed to start a few games towards the end of non-conference play, keeping clean sheets against Nevada and San Diego State in blowout wins.
She’s certain to face competition for the starting role though. Classmate Alexis Rubattino stepped in in 2010 after Henninger had been sent off against Loyola Marymount and then started against Pepperdine the following match. She was third on the depth chart last year, not seeing action, and has to be considered the underdog to Mettler amongst the returnees though. However, the one to watch for Santa Clara this year might be the newest member of the club’s goalkeeping ranks, freshman Andi Tostanoski. One of the top goalkeeping recruits in the country, Tostanoski’s a great shot stopper who Smith has also praised for her ability on crosses and her distribution. Winner of the Golden Glove at the 2010 USYS ODP National Championship Tournament as well as being a U.S. U18 international, big things are certainly expected from the Colorado native. Now, it’s just a matter of if those big things will begin this season or not for the Broncos and Tostanoski. Though this group has a lot of potential going forward, replacing the quality of Henninger straight away doesn’t promise to be easy.
SCU’s new netminder will also have to deal with some new faces in the backline after the graduation of a pair of starters after last season. Team co-captain Margueritte Aozasa was an immediate hit upon the beginning of her career as a utility player in 2008, starting in defense and midfield for the club before rounding into a stalwart at center-back over the past two seasons. The heady central defender also had the knack for the rare goal and/or assist, logging two of each in WCC play last season. Also gone is Jenny LaPonte, a player of real quality who was desperately unlucky with injuries over the course of her career. Another tremendously talented and versatile player for the Broncos, after two seasons, it appeared that LaPonte had the potential to be one of the league’s best. Serious injuries would cut her down in the middle of 2010 and 2011 though, leaving many to wonder what could have been for the Castro Valley native.
Junior Ellie Rice looks like taking up the mantle of the club’s new defensive leader. Capable just about anywhere for the Broncos, Rice had a fine rookie season in 2010, making thirteen starts and raising hopes for the future. Rice would begin her sophomore season in outstanding fashion last year, with two goals on her season debut to help down San Jose State. It’d be her only points of the season, but Rice was a constant in the lineup, starting every game for the Broncos on her way to All-Region Second Team honors.
The other likely stalwart at the back this season is Alyssa Kleiner, who promptly came in and made a big impact as a rookie last season. Another recruited as an attacker who ended up in defense, the big Las Vegas native started twenty matches and earned WCC All-Freshman Team honors following a fine debut campaign. A potential replacement for Aozasa in the center of defense this season is junior Cali Reis. Seemingly on the verge of breaking into the starting lineup full-time for the past two seasons, Reis has started twelve matches over the past two years and also scored against Cal in the NCAA Tournament last season. The big Oregon native looks like a natural to move into the starting lineup given her experience and the club’s seeming lack of depth on the backline.
U17 international Aly Birgel looked like a contender for a starting spot going into last year after an impressive freshman season in 2010, making ten starts for the Broncos. The 5’11″ junior regressed as a sophomore though, making just eight appearances off the bench, and Smith must surely be hoping she can get back on track in 2012.
The starting departures could also create an opportunity for major minutes for freshman Megan Crosson. A tall, left-footed player with great attacking ability going forward, Smith has praised her decision making and ability to both score and set up goals. Another product from the powerhouse So Cal Blues club, Crosson will be looking to avoid the injury bug though after some injury plagued seasons at club level. While the club does lose some big pieces, the likes of Rice and Kleiner should ensure this group of some smooth sailing for the most part this year. The key will be finding the right pieces to fill the vacated spots on the starting backline. Given Smith’s proclivity to mix and match, the composition of that starting defense could be volatile in nature throughout the year, especially early on as the Broncos’ boss tries to get a feel for his reworked defense.
Things begin to get a little rosier further up the pitch for the Broncos. All of last year’s major contributors in the middle of the park are set to return, which is a good thing considering the talent packed in that unit for SCU. An emerging star for Smith’s club is senior Meleana Shim, a newly crowned U.S. U23 international who made significant strides as a junior last year. After beginning her career as a top reserve as a rookie, Shim has grown into a starting role, turning into one of the side’s top distributors. Four assists last season was a nice return, and Shim was deadly from the penalty spot as well, going three-for-three on spot kicks. She looks to be going from strength to strength and could be one of the WCC’s best this year.
Another good bet for the starting lineup is senior Olivia Klei. A U20 international also more than capable at stepping in in defense, Klei has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for all three seasons she’s been at SCU. The veteran has proven handy at dishing out assists, with four in WCC play in 2010 before logging a trio last year, and the Pleasanton native should again be a steady presence for the Broncos either in midfield or on the backline.
Smith will also be hoping for a bounce back season from senior Lauren Matheson, yet another former youth international suiting up for the Broncos this year. Matheson had looked like one of the league’s brightest prospects for her first two seasons with the club, especially after a 2010 that featured three goals and four assists. But the Californian’s junior year was a bit of a down season, with Matheson starting just eleven games and netting three goals and two assists, with two of those strikes coming against a tame UC Santa Barabara side. She’s capable of much more, and SCU will be aiming to get much more out of her this campaign.
Senior Allie Vernon has had her career wrecked by injuries, with the once very promising Illinois native now fighting for a full-time spot in the starting lineup. Vernon was the WCC co-Freshman of the Year in 2009 despite missing the first five matches of the season as a rookie. She would miss all of 2010 with a back injury before returning last season to start eight games and come off the bench in eight others. If she can stay healthy and recapture the form from earlier in her career, it’d go a long way for SCU’s title hopes this season. Sophomore Kat McAuliffe will also be hoping for an influx of more minutes this season after coming off the bench in eight games last year, also scoring a goal in the blowout win over San Francisco in October.
There could also be a slew of early minutes for freshman Danielle Weatherholt. Weatherholt comes in with a bevy of plaudits from youth level, including numerous call-ups to the U.S U18 team, a USYS National Championship Best XI distinction in 2011, and NSCAA Youth All-American honors in the same year. Smith compares her highly with former SCU great Leslie Osborne, which should give you some idea of her potential. This group looks packed with talent and should be among the league’s best again.
Santa Clara might have a deadly attack this season, but it comes with a rather large caveat. While both of last season’s top scorers return for the new season, both Johnston and Huerta will be gone for the U20 World Cup, meaning this group has some scrambling to do to find a solution in front of goal for the opening weeks of the season.
Depth takes a bit of a hit as well, with the loss of three of the club’s top reserves. Bridgett Miller was a super sub for the Broncos for the better part of four seasons but really only began to hit her stride last year. Miller may have only scored four goals last year, but they came in consecutive matches in league play, with three going down as game winners. It’s hard to argue that SCU would have been in a position to potentially win the league had Miller not come through late in the season. Also gone are Sara Brathwaite, who transferred to DePaul in the offseason after making a couple starts last season, and classmate Kelly Jenks, who made nine appearances off the bench as a sophomore last year.
Johnston enters her junior year as a First Team All-American and one of the very best players in the nation. She’s also a jack of all trades for the Broncos, capable of being a rock on defense or a major force going forward for SCU. As the newly appointed captain of the U.S. U20 team, Johnston will mess the first month of the season but should be the heartbeat of the club upon her return. She led the team in scoring last season with nine goals, including four game winners and is more than capable of leading the line if need be. However, she could also slot back into the midfield if the club shows enough punch on the frontline, or even move back into defense if the team needs her there. No matter where she plays though, Johnston will have a major impact on the pitch for SCU.
The other big scoring threat for the Broncos this season is Huerta, who’ll also be in Japan at the U20 World Cup, she with Mexico. Huerta has certainly become a hot commodity at international level as of late, shifting allegiances to El Tri after having previously been a part of the U.S. youth international setup. Mexico would appear to be getting a dangerous weapon going forward, as Huerta, despite being recruited and listed as a forward, ended up being a revelation in attack last season with eight goals. A hat trick against San Diego State and braces against St. Mary’s (CA) and San Francisco showed her potential. Now it’s just a matter of seeing her develop further and become a bigger threat against the sterner opposition SCU’s likely to encounter.
The $64,000 question of course is who scores when the two are away at the beginning of the season. Junior Sarah Jackson certainly has the advantage as far as experience goes, but the Arizonan hasn’t exactly been prolific so far. Jackson made seventeen starts last year but scored just twice, though one was against Notre Dame. She should get every chance to impress early in the season though for the Broncos. There are nothing but questions beyond her. Junior Paige Robertson is the most tenured of the other reserves and started a pair of games last year, including in the NCAA Tournament against Cal, but has shown little in front of goal thus far.
Sophomore Cate Parchinski entered last season as a heavily touted recruit but proved to be still very green, mostly serving off the bench last season as a rookie. She did score three goals and added three assists though, and her physicality and size makes her a load to for defenders to handle. She still has enormous upside, and could well develop into a great player for the Broncos. Other returnees looking for more minutes include sophomore Brooke Rice, sister of junior standout Ellie, and sophomore Katie Speidel, another of last season’s top recruits who’ll be looking to grow into her potential either up front or in midfield. There could also be the emergence of redshirt freshman Alesha Blair, a U17 international and NSCAA Youth All-American coming into last season who missed all of her rookie season. If she can come back strong, she could be an ace in the hole for Smith and the Broncos this year.
The big weapon for Santa Clara is the one that won’t be playing this year though, Nebraska transfer Morgan Marlborough. The former All-American and offensive juggernaut for the Huskers will have to sit out this season because of transfer rules but will have next season to add to her fifty-nine career goals and needs just twenty to break into the DI top twenty of all-time goal scorers. The sight of Marlborough, Johnston, and Huerta running at opposing defenses should be enough to send chills down the spines of most coaches around the country. As is, SCU should be pretty dangerous with Johnston and Huerta leading the way up front but desperately need someone to help pick up the slack while both are away early on.
This might finally be the year where Santa Clara gets their groove back. They certainly showed signs of it last season before running out of gas very late in the season to blow their WCC title chances before a shock exit in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Though the club loses the excellent Henninger in goal, the attack looks vibrant and dangerous, especially once Johnston and Huerta come back from Japan. They might need to score more than a few goals though, with the defense needing a little retooling and having to break in a new starting goalkeeper, though there’s certainly potential among the choices in goal for Smith. The versatility throughout the squad should certainly help his cause though, as this team has many players capable of slotting in all around the pitch.
Marlborough could be the final piece of the puzzle, meaning Santa Clara could be in store for a monster year in 2013. As for this season, they’ll open up as a favorite in the WCC for good reason and should also be more than capable of winning multiple games in the NCAA Tournament, though they may still be a piece or two short of being a College Cup contender.