Broncos ready to grind it out

Dec. 9, 2001

By Tim Nash in Dallas

Dallas, Texas -- Santa Clara has a rich tradition in the NCAA tournament. The Broncos have appeared in the last 13 post-season tourneys and have posted a 25-12 record, outscoring opponents 74-35.

Eight of those 12 losses have come in the national semifinals. For the first-time ever, Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith sat in the Saturday press conference to answer questions about his team as they prepare for the national championship game.

"We're very excited to be here," Smith told reporters. "I've never been to this press conference before."

And the reasons Smith and the Broncos have never played for the national championship is one of the great mysteries in women's college soccer. They have certainly been talented enough in past years. From 1996 through 1999, Santa Clara lost a total of nine games, while posting 85 wins. But each year, they lost in the semis. Friday night in an overtime win over Florida, it appeared like they might make yet another early exit.

"We've lost in this thing every which way you can think of," Smith said after the game. "I thought we were going to find another way tonight."

But the Broncos found the way to win. Veronica Zepeda scored in the fifth minute of overtime. Surviving a semifinal match may have given the Broncos the psychological boost they need to finally win an NCAA crown. And it might just give Smith a reprieve from his depressing College Cup history.

The losses by 1998 and 1999 teams were particularly shocking. In 1998, the Broncos entered the semis with a 22-0-1 record. In 1999, they were 23-0-0. This year's Broncos, despite not being the most talented or experienced team in Santa Clara history (that distinction would most likely go to the 1999 side), may have the best chance at bringing home the title that has eluded them for so long.

And the reasons have little to do with tactics, talent or luck -- whether it is good or bad. It has everything to do with heart.

On Thursday, Santa Clara's Aly Wagner, the most impressive player in the semifinals this year, talked about her willingness to grind it out, to do whatever it took to get the win. Pretty losses, Wagner has realized, are pretty much useless. She wants nothing to do with them.

"One of our Achilles'' heels in the past has been that we were not able to grind it out," said Smith. "That's one of the lessons we've learned."

For several years, Smith suspected the missing ingredient had little to do with talent. After his 1999 team flamed out in the semis to Notre Dame, he knew for sure.

"We had such a great season in '99," said Smith. "It was highlighted by beating UNC in the regular season. Then we scored seven times on a good UCLA team and beat Portland by eight goals. We just rolled. But we came up short. Maybe there was a softness to our team.

"Before 1999, we weren't fully funded, and I thought when we got fully funded (with the maximum number of allowed scholarships) that would change things. We kind of had a 'Woe is me' attitude. But after 1999, we had to take a very close look at it. Were we putting enough emphasis on intensity in training sessions? Were we recruiting players who were mentally tough enough? The answer was no."

The 2000 season helped Santa Clara grow in terms of heart and desire. Ironically, it was not in the way Smith would have chosen. Injuries to key players like Wagner, Danielle Slaton and Anna Kraus contributed to a season that saw the Broncos struggle. Seven losses and tie stuck out on Santa Clara's usually spotless record last year, but by the time the year wound down, the Broncos had advanced all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals.

Last year, the Broncos had to rely on things other than superior talent, and they were relatively successful. This season, six of Santa Clara's 22 wins have been by one goal, including their last two playoff matches. Wagner says those games - 3-2 wins over Virginia last week and Florida on Friday - prove the team has decided to do whatever is necessary to win the big games.

"I think the last two games showed that we are willing to grind it out," said Wagner who had a goal and three assists in the past two matches. "We'll definitely be mentally prepared for the game (Sunday). It's the last game of the season, and you have to leave everything on the field."

Wagner is certainly the key to Santa Clara's fortunes, and all indications are that she is not about to let a lack of effort or heart keep her and her teammates from a national title.

"Sometimes in the past, if Aly wasn't getting the ball or if we couldn't get her the ball, she would get frustrated," said Smith. "And this isn't anything she hasn't heard before. Now if teams are focusing on her, she finds a way to impact the game. I think that's something that has helped us get over the (semifinal) hurdle."

There's one more hurdle - perennial national champion North Carolina. A win against UNC would answer virtually every question that surrounds the Bronco program.

"First, we just wanted to get to the final," said Wagner. "Now we're excited to play Carolina. They're always the team you want to play. If we made it to the final and they didn't, everyone would wondered what would have happened if we played them. It should be a great game."

And the one that grinds it out the most will most likely be the winner.