SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In a season in which it went to the 23rd NCAA Tournament in school history, the Santa Clara University women's soccer team (13-2-6; 6-1-1 WCC) reestablished the lofty standards set by a program that has made 10 College Cup appearances and took home a national championship in 2001. The Broncos reached as high as No. 7 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll after topping undefeated and then-No. 3 Pepperdine on Oct. 28. The Broncos won 13 games for the third consecutive season but cut their losses from seven in 2009 and 2010 to two in 2011.
"I think it was a great season for us," said Bronco head coach Jerry Smith. "We reestablished some standards in our program that weren't there for the last few years. It's been a few years since our standard in training, our standard in our offseason, our standard in our expectations were as high as they were this year. I'm very proud that we were able to reestablish those high standards. To only lose two games in a year, one of which was to the newly-crowned national champion Stanford, is very impressive. The last time we did that we won the national championship. So just a terrific year for us."
The Broncos started off their season on the right foot by winning each of their first three games. In each game a Santa Clara player had two goals, a feat that would be accomplished a total of six times over the course of the 21-game season.
Santa Clara played its first home game at Buck Shaw Stadium against defending national champion and then-No. 8 Notre Dame. The Broncos struck first with a goal off the head of Sarah Jackson on a beautiful cross from Allie Vernon but the Irish were able to tie the game at 1-1 in the 63rd minute and neither team would score again. With the tie the Broncos were unbeaten through their first seven games.
The following weekend presented the biggest challenge of the young season for the youthful Bronco team. No. 1 and back-to-back national runner-up Stanford had ended Santa Clara's season in the NCAA Tournament in both 2009 and '10 and came to the Mission campus for a battle of top-25 teams. The Cardinal left Santa Clara with a 2-0 victory, the first loss on the season for the Broncos.
A week later Santa Clara faced another top-25 Pac-12 opponent in No.17 Cal, its eventual NCAA Tournament First Round opponent. Santa Clara won the game handily by a score of 3-0 while getting two goals from 2010 WCC Freshman of the Year Julie Johnston. Johnston ended the season leading the conference in both goals (9) and game-winners (4). Those numbers made her a semifinalist for the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy and an All-WCC First Team member.
"It's an honor to even be recognized as a M.A.C. Hermann Trophy semi-finalist," said Johnston. "To be in a group with the other semifinalist, all of whom are terrific soccer players, makes this season even more special. Being blessed to play with such phenomenal teammates and coaching staff has motivated me to work harder and to be recognized individually makes me want to reach my greatest potential."
As October began and non-conference play ended, freshman Sofia Huerta was ready to show that she would be a force in the conference for the next four years. Against San Diego State, Huerta registered the first Bronco hat trick since 2003 and added an assist for seven points in the game. The seven points tied for the most points in a game by an individual player in the WCC in 2011. The goals and assist were the first of Huerta's career and the beginning of a stellar month.
In the conference-opener a week later, Huerta showed that she wasn't a one-hit wonder. She scored both goals, including the overtime winner, in the Broncos 2-1 overtime victory vs. Saint Mary's. Huerta would end up second in the WCC in shots (75) and tied for fourth in goals (8) on the season.
When October ended, Huerta had scored eight goals and added three assists on the month while helping to lead the Broncos to a 7-0-1 record. Counting the three wins to end September, Santa Clara was on an 11-game unbeaten streak that included a win on senior day against undefeated No. 3 Pepperdine. Fittingly, the only goal in the Pepperdine game was scored by senior and reigning WCC Player of the Week Bridgett Miller. The previous week Miller had scored game-winning goals at Portland and at Gonzaga. After scoring against Pepperdine and LMU she was honored again and became the only player in 2011 to receive back-to-back Player of the Week honors. With her flurry of goals, Miller ended up tied for third in goals scored in conference play (4).
With its record at 13-1-5 Santa Clara travelled to San Diego to take on the Toreros in an attempt to capture its first conference title since 2006. On a rain-soaked field that had been torn-up by a game earlier in the day, the Broncos struggled to get their offense going and ended up falling 3-0. Despite the loss, Santa Clara still received an at-large bid to host Cal in the NCAA Tournament.
Santa Clara and Cal battled to a 1-1 tie through regulation and two overtime periods before Cal advanced to the second round 4-3 on penalty kicks. The game ended the careers of the four Santa Clara seniors including All-American goalkeeper and team co-captain Bianca Henninger and fellow co-captain Margueritte Aozasa. Jenny LaPonte and Bridgett Miller rounded out the 2011 senior class. A preseason All-American, Henninger won WCC Goalkeeper of the Year with a 0.72 GAA and .831 save percentage, both second in the conference, and recorded five shutouts.
When all four WCC teams to make the NCAA Tournament had been eliminated, Santa Clara was on top of the WCC leader boards with 338 shots that led to 41 goals and placed second by allowing only 14 goals. The Broncos also recorded 10 shutouts which tied them for first with Pepperdine. The team's .861 save percentage was second in the conference, just behind Pepperdine's .865.
After such an impressive season with such a young team, the Broncos are looking forward to the future with tremendous anticipation.
"I think all of us are very excited about the season we're going to have next year," said Smith. "Obviously we have to replace four very good seniors on our team but in the end we feel very good about the young players that are returning. My feeling is that we will be a much better attacking team next year than we were this year and that's saying quite a bit coming off a year in which we only had two losses. We're very thrilled about what next year will look like for us."