August 29, 2002

Women's Soccer Expects Bumpy Start to Title Defense

Aug. 29, 2002

by Dylan Hernandez
San Jose Mercury News

Tossed and turned down the rapids and over the boulders of the American River, they clung to their rafts, their oars, and each other.

To the women of the Santa Clara University soccer team, their recent day-long rafting excursion was just that -- a rafting trip.

But Coach Jerry Smith thinks it will have a metaphoric meaning later this year.

His team, which opens the season Friday against Stanford, lost several key players who helped it win the NCAA title last year. If the top-ranked Broncos are to repeat as national champions, Smith said they will have to endure as many rough spots as they did on that journey down the American River.

``I know we're going to get off to a slow start,'' Smith said. ``We lost some key players. We're going to take a couple of hits in the first half of the season.''

Smith's roster is by no means full of holes -- it features the national player of the year, Aly Wagner -- but gone are the defensive anchors who allowed the Broncos to push forward without the fear of being effectively counterattacked.

Four-time All-American Danielle Slaton was the top pick in the Women's United Soccer Association draft and was voted the defensive player of the year with the Carolina Courage. Fellow defender Anna Kraus was drafted seventh overall by the Atlanta Beat and later was traded to the San Diego Spirit. Also departing was defensive midfielder Kerry Cathcart.

A weakened defense, however, won't prevent the Broncos from opening up. They led the nation in offense last season, averaging 3.2 goals in 25 matches.

Smith is among the dying breed of soccer coaches who care as much about the aesthetics of a game as the result. Mention the defensive tactics that this summer produced one of the dullest World Cups in history and Smith shakes his head.

It's a style he won't -- or perhaps just hasn't had to -- adopt.

``I don't enjoy it,'' Smith said. ``The players don't enjoy it, and the fans definitely don't enjoy it.''

Smith's philosophy continues to lure some of the country's finest talent.

``Santa Clara plays pretty soccer,'' said All-America forward Veronica Zepeda, a Southern California native. ``It's the type of soccer I wanted to play.''

Said Wagner, who followed the Broncos while growing up in San Jose: ``A huge part of my decision to come to Santa Clara was because I wanted to play for Jerry Smith. He lets your creativity flow, he lets personalities flare.''

Wagner, a senior, is one of the reasons Smith thinks his team can continue to outscore opponents. The nation's assists leader (0.83 per game), Wagner scored 17 goals in 2001 to win the Honda Award as the nation's top player.

Wagner, however, could miss up to half of the regular season if, as expected, she's called up as the United States qualifies for the 2003 Women's World Cup.

She wouldn't be the only one to miss action.

Senior midfielder Devvyn Hawkins also may get a call-up, and defender Jessica Ballweg, forward/midfielder Leslie Osborne and forward Megan Kakadelas -- all sophomores -- are representing the United States at the under-19 World Cup in Canada. If the U.S. team makes the final, those three will be absent from Buck Shaw Stadium when the Broncos face Stanford on Friday.

Also, Zepeda and forward Bree Horvath missed all of preseason practice and won't be available for some time. Zepeda suffers from shin splints, and Horvath is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.

These setbacks, Smith promised, are just the first few bumps on his team's trip back to the NCAA tournament. More will come, and the Broncos will have to hang on.