The Brigham Young University Cougars defeated Santa Clara in penalties in a semifinal match Friday night to advance to the Dec. 6 College Cup finale against Florida State University at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara. The Broncos and BYU had tied 0-0 before the shootout. BYU lost to Florida St in a similar penalty shootout Monday night, following a 0-0 tied score.
The temptation to compare successes of the Santa Clara University women’s soccer program to scenes from a movie is almost too hard to resist.
After Brandi Chastain clinched the 99ers’ nail-biting World Cup penalty kick win against China, the former Bronco phenom—and her now-infamous black sports bra—became an iconic embodiment of jubilation published around the world.
The team’s reach extended to the silver screen in 2002, as fictional British footballers Jess Bhamra and Jules Paxton chased their “American Dream” in the cult classic Bend It Like Beckham, suiting up under Santa Clara’s palm trees and California sunshine. The timing was serendipitous, as the Broncos were just ranked #1 in the country, following their first NCAA Championship victory in 2001 against powerhouse University of North Carolina.
Two decades later, in May 2021, the No. 11 SCU women bucked top-seeded Florida State and claimed their second Division 1 championship, persevering through a shortened 2020 season plagued by the toughest pandemic restrictions in the nation, imposed by Santa Clara County public health officials, and apocalyptic orange skies full of wildfire smoke.
Now, the team is preparing for a curtain-call performance, returning to the 2021 NCAA Women's College Cup on Dec. 3 and 5—only seven months later—as one of the final four DI women’s soccer teams left standing, alongside Rutgers, Brigham Young University and Florida State (again).
The red-and-white-clad team is reveling in the opportunity to play with a home field advantage at Stevens Stadium, the quaint yet elite patch of grass known as Buck Shaw Field on SCU’s campus, just off El Camino Real.
One man has been along for the entire ride, coaching from the sidelines as his team carved out a reputation as one of the winningest sports at SCU and a premier destination for soccer’s emerging stars.
That man, Jerry Smith, is leading the Broncos for his 35th consecutive year. Smith’s approach to recruiting players, training athletes and playing the beautiful game has proved pivotal to Santa Clara’s national tournament appearances and its ability to serve as a pipeline for professional players, for the National Women's Soccer League, overseas clubs and the U.S. Women’s National Team, alike. And he’s tallied more than 520 W’s in scorebooks in the meantime—the third most career wins for a coach in the history of Division 1 women’s soccer.
It remains to be seen if this may be the year Smith calls it quits, as the seven-year contract extension he signed in 2014 ticks closer to completion. While he can exercise an option for three more years—a timeline calculated by when his youngest son graduates high school—there’s no denying this 2021 return to the national stage provides a poetic 20-year bookend to the first time the Broncos won it all.
“It'd be interesting to see how many coaches in different sports have won national championships 20 years apart,” Smith told me. “In 35 years, we've been national champions twice. That's a lot of times that we failed. But, for me, it's part of the bigger plan we see.”
KEY TO THE CITY
The Broncos embodied their mascot’s namesake in the 1980s, as the half-tamed team kicked off its first few years in the West Coast Conference without much postseason success.
That changed with Smith’s arrival in 1987, despite the inauspicious circumstances: a team without a dedicated soccer field and a locker room with no air conditioning, heat or internet. Earning a starting annual salary of $2,400, he crafted game plans from a trailer-turned-office for his first 18 years.
Smith is a quintessential hometown hero; he coached seven seasons at his alma mater Homestead High School in Cupertino and helped the women’s team at Foothill College from 1982 to 1986. But asking him to recall how the Santa Clara Women’s team got to where it is today unleashes a barrage of statistics from the tenured coach.
“We were hitting on all cylinders back then. We hosted the Final 4 here in ’96 and played in the Final 4 in ’96, ’97, ’98 and ’99,” Smith says. “We were not the best team in the country, we were by far the best team in the country in ’99. We won the championship in ’01, played in the final again in ’02. We were probably—mid ’90s to 2004—the best team in the country in that 10-year period, and I don't think there'd be much dispute about that, quite honestly.”
As the team continued to recruit players, two of the best in the country—who just happened to be from San Jose—joined Smith’s roster in 1998: Aly Wagner and Danielle Slaton. After helping secure the team’s first title, the duo went on to become professional players and Fox Sports soccer analysts.
“I think that we deserve some credit for starting a new trend that has teams playing better soccer, keeping the ball, valuing the ball, moving the ball,” Smith says, reflecting on the challenge of crafting a winning team without the same financial support other programs could draw upon to attract a deep bench of the fittest athletes. “Yeah, teams can do that better than us today, but we're the first one to stick with it and say we can win a championship this way; you don't have to do it the Carolina way.”
Since returning to their home pitch in August, the Broncos have gone from one of the underdogs to the team to beat—after a season that earned the program a Key to the City of Santa Clara. Several players returned from last year, when the Broncos were the highest scoring team in the country. But this year, the team doesn’t boast any players ranked for the most for goals, assists or even goalie minutes within Division 1 teams.
Smith says there are days when his mind races at night, trying to duplicate the high of bringing a group of women together to reach their highest potential each year. Chastain, who became his wife in 1996, even caught him weeping in their San Jose back yard, faced with the unique pressures the pandemic threw his way.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” has been a challenging adage, Smith says, balancing the need to play their best game, while shifting strategies to counter teams that have studied film of their strengths and weaknesses, following last season’s victory.
“Last year we were the hunter, and we knocked down the Top 10 teams in the tournament and won the championship,” Smith ruminates. “Now, we're the ones with the big target on our backs and we're finding that more difficult. But that's what coaching is—that's the exciting part, figuring out puzzles and complex problems.”
‘CROWN JEWEL OF WOMEN’S SOCCER’
Those complex problems included underwhelming performances in the preseason this past fall, but the Broncos managed to pull out vital wins at Pepperdine and Brigham Young universities in order to be eligible for the NCAA tournament.
But Alex Loera, a fifth-year centerback, almost prefers this year's storyline: starting off dangerously slow coming off a championship title, before ultimately winning against top-seeded Duke on Nov. 27—an unlikely method of punching a return ticket to the College Cup.
“I’m just extremely proud of my team for these really tough road wins that we've had to overcome,” Loera says, adding that, in addition to family and friends, local supporters have been a rock for the team, from social media posts while they’re traveling to the youth teams that pack Buck Shaw’s stands. “Especially after last year, the fan base has just grown tremendously. Inspiring the next generation of female athletes is just incredible, and to have them come to our games and watch us—we know that we're so loved by this community.”
Renee Baumgartner, SCU’s director of athletics, agrees. She says the millions of dollars the school has dedicated toward its sports programs since 2014 have helped draw in even more community interest, as well as keeping Smith on staff, despite being in a smaller conference.
The investment has worked so far; Smith says he sees Santa Clara as the “crown jewel of women’s soccer,” compared to some Power Five conference programs. Players have pointed to the port-a-potties and tents set up for their away match against UCLA as one example that illustrates the differences between programs.
Ever since the College Cup was rescheduled from PayPal Park to Stevens Stadium, Baumgartner says she’s heard feedback that student athletes are looking forward to playing in the comforts of their own 10,000-body stadium, as opposed to looking at empty sections scattered across the new home of the San Jose Earthquakes—the same men’s Major League Soccer team who previously shared SCU’s grass during their matches.
“Soccer is our highest attendance of a women's sport at Santa Clara; we've always embraced it and I think it's really a reason why we are able to get some of the top recruits in the country to come here,” Baumgartner says. “We’ve got a legendary coach that people believe in and want to make sure that he has the resources to compete at the highest level. His work and record has proven that he is one of the best in the country.”
And while Loera and most of her teammates agree the small Jesuit campus—complete with palm trees and Mission architecture smack dab within the Valley of Heart’s Delight—is a hard bargain to pass up, they concede that the legacy of athletes who played under Smith’s leadership remains the main draw.
“On my official visit, I told Jerry I wanted to play professionally and make it to the national team someday. I asked, ‘Are you going to be able to help me get there?’ and he said absolutely,” Loera says. “His confidence in me and his confidence in his answer really reassured me that this was the place I needed to be and was going to give me the best opportunity to fulfill my dreams.”
That’s certainly been the case for alumni like Chastain, Slaton and Wagner, but also for Marian Dougherty, Julie Ertz, Leslie Osborne and most recently Sofia Huerta, a 2015 graduate.
Senior forward Kelsey Turnbow also committed to SCU because she knew Smith would be at the school for her entire tenure, wanting to tap into his experience on and off the field. But Turnbow has also upheld Chastain as a role model since she first watched Dare to Dream, a 2005 documentary highlighting the ’99ers victory. Despite Santa Clara’s history for not getting as much recognition as bigger schools like Duke, Stanford or UCLA, the presence of Chastain and Smith sealed the deal.
These days, she says she and her teammates feel especially vindicated that they made the right choice.
“There's no excuses as to why we're in the Final Four,” Turnbow says, adding that two WCC conference teams made the cut. “There's now no way for people to say it's a fluke or anything. You can't argue with two back-to-back College Cups.”
When Turnbow and Loera both graduate after this season—enjoying an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19—the two players will get to see the ever-expanding attention on women’s soccer firsthand. Loera is joining the roster at Kansas City NWSL, which is building the first stadium created specifically for a National Women's Soccer League team; Turnbow is suiting up for the Chicago Red Stars, who placed second in the league’s 2021 final. The duo may find themselves playing in front of record-setting audiences, like the Portland Thorns and OL Reign enjoyed last year.
But still soaking in her last games as a Santa Clara Bronco, Loera says it's now easy to forget the stardom attached to their coaching staff, whether practicing on the field or getting texts filled with advice.
“We're very, very lucky and blessed to have [Chastain] and her guidance here,” Loera says. “It’s easy to kind of lose the fantasizing over it, but then you take a step back and you just appreciate it for a second and you're like, ‘This is crazy.’”
BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOAL
Thirty-five years since first arriving on campus, Smith sees his role as a coach as bigger than any 90-minute match on a soccer field. Instead, he frames his job more like that of a teacher—helping players learn not only how to hone their skills at the highest tier but also their approach to life.
Borrowing motivation (and an acronym) from Jim Collins, a Stanford-trained leadership guru and “socratic advisor” in Silicon Valley, Smith hopes he’s instilled one lesson in particular at Santa Clara University, whenever his clock runs out: BHAG.
“A Big Hairy Audacious Goal—it doesn't have to be something that you know is achievable, but just has to be something that's out there,” Smith explains. “If you could pull off a miracle, how would you want this thing to unfold?
“I decided that the BHAG for Santa Clara women's soccer was to be the best women’s soccer program in the country’s history. We’re not there, and we may never get there again, but the point is not to have a goal that is absolutely achievable, but to strive for that goal. We’re unafraid to say we want to be the best, we’re unafraid to take on the past, we’re unafraid to say we want to be champions. And we know that when we don’t make it, it hurts like hell.”
This year’s BHAG for the Santa Clara Women’s Soccer team is obvious: win the College Cup for the second year in a row. If this seems like a momentous task, that’s the point. But at the end of the day, no matter the results on Stevens Stadium’s scoreboard, Smith says he will be measuring his own personal success on something other than goals.
Rather, he’s rooting for the future successes and personal achievements of the athletes who pass through his program.
“I hope, long after I'm gone, that those core values live on and future coaches and players are unafraid to fall short and unafraid to grow, because in that process, you're getting closer and closer to the team, the person, the student, the athlete you want to be,” Smith says. “I’m not perfect either, but I'm passionate, hard-working, unafraid to set big goals, and I think that's a big part of the legacy that I want to leave behind here for Santa Clara women’s soccer.”