Dec. 5, 2002
By Dwight Chapin
San Francisco Chronicle
It's hard to tell what kind of soccer player Veronica Zepeda might be if she had two good legs to stand on.
For three seasons at Santa Clara, she has limped and gimped along with a variety of injuries, including stress fractures in her shins and Achilles tendinitis.
"This season has definitely been the toughest one," she said. "It started with shin splints, but it seemed like one thing kind of just led to another. I was trying to manage the shin splints, but at one point, the Achilles started hurting even more."
Because of the continuing leg problems, Zepeda's playing time was restricted early in the season, as the Broncos struggled, but she's felt much better lately, and her team is much the better for it.
She scored the decisive second goal last Saturday as Santa Clara beat Michigan 3-1 to advance to the NCAA women's Final Four this weekend in Austin, Texas. The Broncos play perennial power North Carolina in one semifinal Friday, with Portland and Penn State meeting in the other one.
There's little doubt the tiny (5-foot-2) Zepeda, a junior forward/midfielder from Riverside who is the third oldest of nine children, could be a huge factor against the Tar Heels.
In last season's semifinals, she scored the winning goal in overtime against Florida as Santa Clara advanced to the title game with North Carolina, and ended up winning its first national title.
There may not be a better ball-handler in the women's game than Zepeda, who began honing her skills as a 6-year-old on a boys' team coached by her uncle, and by juggling.
"Veronica is one of the clever-est dribblers in college soccer," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said. "If teams have never played against dribblers like her, they're very surprised. I thought Veronica's goal (against Michigan) was a perfect example of quickness, cleverness and overcoming bigger, stronger players."
Zepeda, a third-team All-American last season, had a terrific 2001 NCAA Tournament, despite her leg woes, and Smith is crossing his fingers that more of the same is in store.
Throughout much of the season, he's had to rest her frequently, but she's been playing extended minutes lately, a promising sign.
The extra time hasn't come without a price, however.
"Usually, when I'm playing, my legs are the last thing I'm thinking about," Zepeda said. "But after games, they're pretty sore, so I have to have treatments with ice and deep-tissue massage."
Pounding all over a soccer field at break-neck speed is not the best prescription for healing, Zepeda knows, but she hopes her physical condition will improve so she can continue to pursue the game she loves -- one more season in college and then internationally and professionally.
She has played for the Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 national teams, and in her first start for the Under-21 team at the 2002 Nordic Cup, she scored a goal and had an assist in leading her team to the championship match.
So, she's crossing her fingers that her legs will hold up.
"I hope it all works out," she said, "because I want so much to keep going."
The immediate goal, of course, is helping the Broncos try to win another national title.
"Friday's game against North Carolina is going to be very tough," she said, "but after what we accomplished last year, we definitely have a little more confidence that it's possible to do it again. We've come a long way from the beginning of the season. I think our timing is good for another championship."
NOTES: Smith is well aware of the threat the 16-time NCAA champion Tar Heels pose.
"We've had a lot of great matches against North Carolina in our history," he said. "We've been fortunate to win our last two matches against them. But they're still the team to beat. They're not the No. 1 seed, but everybody knows they're the team to beat."
2002 Women's Soccer College Cup
-- WHERE: Austin, Texas
-- WHEN: Friday and Sunday
-- MATCHUPS: Penn State (18-4-1) vs. University of Portland (17-4-2) at 2 p. m.; defending national champion Santa Clara (19-4-1) vs. North Carolina (21-1- 4) at 4:30 p.m.
-- TV: First semifinal will be shown live on ESPN2; second semifinal will be tape-delayed on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. Saturday. Championship match Sunday will be aired live at noon on ESPN.