SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For the Santa Clara women's soccer team, the season started and ended in Virginia. But that's about the only similarity between the No. 20 Broncos who kicked off their season vs. No. 1 North Carolina and the No. 9 Broncos that fell in penalty kicks at No. 4 Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. The early-season Broncos looked overmatched vs. two of the top teams in the country on the opening weekend but by the end of the year was one of the most dangerous teams in the country. While the season ended in disappointing fashion, the Broncos finished one of the program's most successful years in the last decade with a No. 7 ranking.
"Our mode of operation here for many years has been to ease into the season," said Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith. "We're built for late season success, so to have your highest ranking in the last poll of the year is a job well done. We were able to find ways to improve throughout the year and we got acknowledgment from the other coaches. Generally, if you go out in the round of 16 you're going to be ranked nine or higher because eight other teams went farther than you. I think that shows some respect for our program because the other coaches saw how good of a team we had. I feel very good about finishing the year with our highest ranking and the players and coaches should be very proud of that."
After falling to No. 1 North Carolina 2-0 and No. 7 Virginia 4-0 at the Klockner Classic to open the season, Santa Clara bounced back to win four in a row, including a 1-0 win vs. No. 16 Maryland.
A tough weekend vs. No. 12 Cal and No. 2 Stanford didn't go as planned even though the Broncos outplayed both Pac-12 foes. They tied 1-1 with Cal and suffered a heart breaking loss to Stanford 3-2 in double overtime after being ahead 2-1 with less than a minute in regulation.
"We learned two valuable lessons in the Cal-Stanford weekend," said Smith. "In the Cal game, we learned that it's a game of inches. We had so many opportunities to score and we hit the frame of the goal three times. We saw that if we were able to improve by just a few inches, we could win those games. In the Stanford game, we learned the painful lesson that this can be a game of a few seconds. We were within a minute of winning that game and really folded under the pressure of a big win. More importantly, we learned that we were as good, if not a little better, than those two opponents in those games and that gave us some confidence going forward."
Instead of staying down after the tough loss to rival Stanford, Santa Clara bounced back to win nine games in a row. During that span the Broncos took down No. 22 BYU and outscored opponents 36-5 while scoring nine goals each in two of the games.
Senior day did not start off well for Santa Clara and its nine seniors as the Broncos fell behind 2-0 early in the game. Showing the toughness they had displayed all year, the Broncos stormed back with nine unanswered goals to stay perfect in conference action.
In the final weekend of the regular season, an outright WCC title was in sight for the Broncos as they headed to the Pacific Northwest to face Portland and Gonzaga. On a cold, wet night in Portland, the No. 12 Pilots came away with a 3-1 win. Santa Clara bounced back two days later with a 6-3 win at Gonzaga to clinch a share of the 10th WCC title in program history and received the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It was the 25th NCAA Tournament in Santa Clara women's soccer history.
Seeded fourth in their bracket, Santa Clara drew Cal in the opening round at Buck Shaw. The two teams battled for 90 minutes but Santa Clara was able to come away with the 2-1 win on a goal in the 70th minute by Sofia Huerta.
Next up, the Broncos traveled across the country to Blacksburg, Va. where they took on No. 25 Boston University on the campus of Virginia Tech. In another hard-fought game, Santa Clara came away with a 2-1 win on a late goal from Morgan Marlborough.
The No. 1 seed, No. 4 Virginia Tech, lay in front of Santa Clara and an Elite 8 game at Buck Shaw. A second half goal gave the Hokies a 1-0 lead but Huerta answered to even the score. The game would go to overtime and despite several golden chances, Santa Clara was unable to score and the game went to penalty kicks. Going 3-1 on penalty kicks, Virginia Tech advanced to the Elite 8, and ultimately the Final 4.
"We train ourselves as coaches and players to focus on the performance and not the outcome," said Smith. "When you're in the NCAA Tournament the outcome certainly preoccupies our mind. But we did play very well and talking with their coach, he acknowledged that we were probably the most dangerous team they played in the tournament, including their loss to Florida State in the Final 4. We had some of our best scoring chances of the season in that game, but you have to give credit to the opponent and their goalkeeper made some very nice saves. We feel good about how we played but disappointed in the tie and like so many coaches, frustrated with the penalty kicks. We'll try to remember our performance instead of the outcome of the penalty kick competition."
The Broncos finished the 2013 season 16-4-2 overall and 8-1-0 in conference. They played nine top-25 teams and all four loses and both ties came against ranked teams. Santa Clara was No. 20 in the final RPI.
Santa Clara finished second in the nation in scoring with 2.82 goals per game and was fifth with 7.50 points per game. The Broncos outscored opponents 62-25 while outshooting teams 398-242 and 208-127 in shots on goal. They picked up 110 corner kicks while allowing just 78. Santa Clara dominated both halves, outscoring opponents 35-12 in the first half and 26-12 in the second half.
"The premise we buy into here is that great attacking will beat great defending and we were a great attacking team this year," said Smith. "It helps when you have players like Sofia Huerta, Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough. The best attacking teams in the country have two, three, or more dangerous attacking players on the field and we had that. Not only those three, but a player like Jordan Jesolva or our corner backs. At the end of the year we had Sarah Jackson and Alyssa Kleiner scoring goals and creating goals with assists. By the end of the year we had transformed into a very confident attacking team. This was one of the best attacking teams we've had in program history."
A trio of offensive stars led Santa Clara with each registering at least 32 points. Huerta led the WCC in goals with 16 and points with 40. Her eight assists were also tied for tops in the conference while she scored three game-winning goals. Marlborough scored 15 goals and had 37 points, both second in the WCC, while adding six assists. Marlborough added three game-winning goals on the year and registered three hat tricks (Sept. 12 vs. Iowa State, Oct. 27 vs. San Francisco, and Nov. 3 vs. Pepperdine). WCC Player of the Year Julie Johnston tied for the conference lead with eight assists while finishing third in goals with 12 and points with 32. Freshman Jordan Jesolva added five goals and two assists while seniors Sarah Jackson and Alyson Birgel each found the back of the net three times. Andi Tostanoski started all 22 games in net and had a 1.17 GAA while making 98 saves. Tostanoski had a .803 save percentage and collected 6.3 shutouts.
"Every coach in the country loves to have seniors in the back line and we had three seniors in our back line and one junior," said Smith. "We didn't shy away from playing the best teams in the country this year. The only weekend we were a bad defensive team was the opening weekend and Ellie Rice didn't play that weekend. The only half where we gave up three goals was the second half at Virginia and Allie Vernon was also out with an injury. We bought into the concept that you need both great offense and great defense to win championships so we invested in both of those areas. Our goal differential of plus-37 is incredible and that was in part a credit to our defense."
Despite losing nine seniors, the future is still bright for one of the most revered women's soccer programs in the country.
"We're always excited about rebuilding the team," said Smith. "We often focus on the seniors we're losing, and we're losing some great seniors, but that means you're forgetting all the returners that are going to be better next year. We have plenty of players that want to step into leadership roles or starting roles so we're very excited about the team we have coming back. There are a lot of good players returning who were playing their best soccer at the end of the season and are only going to improve. In a program like ours we almost always lose great players but we look forward to the task of retooling for next year."