The West Coast Conference coaches have set the bar very high for the Santa Clara Bronco women's soccer team, picking them to win the WCC title this year and placing four Broncos on the 11-woman All-WCC preseason team – the most for any team. The Broncos received 63 votes to Pepperdine's 52 in the coaches vote the league office released on Tuesday. Santa Clara is working to win its 10th WCC title, grab its 23rd NCAA tournament bid and advance to its 11th Final Four.
"We feel honored that our fellow WCC coaches have picked us to win the West Coast Conference championship this year. It is a tall order. The coaches have picked us and Pepperdine as the top two teams and that's nice," said Bronco head coach Jerry Smith, who is beginning his 26th year at the helm. "We know for that to happen a lot of things will have to fall into place for us. We will have to work extremely hard to have that prediction come to fruition with so many strong teams in the West Coast Conference."
The Broncos, who finished last year ranked No. 20, were ranked No. 17 in the NSCAA preseason poll released on Aug. 7. Pepperdine was ranked No. 10.
A 2011 First team All-American, Julie Johnston leads the way for the Broncos on the preseason All-WCC team. In addition, senior captain Meleana Shim, junior Ellie Rice and sophomore Sofia Huerta were named to the team. Both Johnston and Huerta were named All-WCC First Team last season and Rice and Shim were named to the All-WCC Second Team.
Smith knows the team will have to work hard to win the WCC title, and even harder to start because it will be without the services of both Johnston (USA) and Huerta (Mexico) as both are playing the U20 World Cup the first few weeks of the season. "Thankfully we have great leadership in our program, including Julie, the captain of the US U20 World Cup team. They know what it takes to reach high goals. They understand how smart and hard-working players and teams have to work to live up to high expectations. We have developed a strong leadership program over the years and we look forward to the challenge of going after the conference championship this year."
Smith praised the work of his captains as one of the strengths that has helped them achieve so much early success. The 2012 captains include Johnston, Shim, Olivia Klei, Lauren Matheson and Morgan Marlborough. Marlborough, the All-American and two-time conference player of the year at Nebraska, will have to sit out this year due to the NCAA transfer rules and then will have two years left to play for the Broncos. Having this kind of practice player this year will certainly help the Broncos. "I have never had a captain who hasn't been with us or wasn't going to be able to play. It says a lot about her. Our backs love playing against Morgan because she is so good. She is one of the best forwards in the country bar-none. To her credit she comes every day and works her tail off," added Smith.
Encouraged by the first week of practice, Smith said the team is improving with every meeting, practice and film session; and doing the extra things it takes to come together as a new team. "We are in the middle of our annual team bonding trip to Lake Tahoe and everybody in the program, players and coaches, is very impressed with the chemistry of this team, including the focus and the work ethic. Those are really good signs as we get into our season because we have high expectations for ourselves this year."
The coaches have noted the team is buying into what they are teaching them and working hard to accomplish the daily tasks. "They are working to stay focused, working to changing bad habits and coming together as a new team. From a physical standpoint they are demonstrating the work ethic and mental toughness to grind through the multitude of things we have to achieve in the preseason," added Smith.
The Broncos have a tall task ahead of them without Johnston and Huerta to start the season due to the U20 World Cup. They will open at No. 1 Stanford, the defending champion on Aug. 17 and then travel to Cal on Aug. 23. After a quick trip home to play UC Riverside on Aug. 26, they will travel to Notre Dame to play the Fighting Irish on Aug. 31 and then UCONN on Sept. 2. They finish their road trip with a Sept. 7 match vs. Georgetown at Stanford.
"For us, it's a very short preseason that opens up at the national champions. The preseason is a really interesting dynamic in our sport. We have 17 days to get ready and we have never practiced together. The newcomers are learning names on day one and then we play the national champions 17 days later - it has to come all together. There are so many things to cover in 17 days. On the field, classroom, chalkboard, away from the field, team building, etc. They are learning to work with one another and to do that with our type of schedule is very challenging. It will be more difficult with Julie and Sofia gone to the World Cup, but when they return we should have all the pieces in the place to start the conference play. Without those two impact players in there, it puts more of a burden on us."
With that said, Smith is pleased by what he has seen. "The players are working very hard to have this thing come together at a very high level. They are really demonstrating a great fortitude. It is so much, but they are absolutely focused, working very hard and demonstrating the mental toughness to get it done. As coaches, we look at non-verbal cues to see if we are pushing too hard and often times we find we can't push harder. This group is allowing us to push them pretty hard and that's a good sign."