For the last two years, the UCSB women’s club soccer team reigned as champions over the rest of the league. However, when this season began, the offense took some time to come together, and it looked as though this might be the year that Santa Barbara would be ousted from its throne.
Luckily, the Gauchos started to click toward the end of the season and went into Nationals riding a three-game win streak. After defeating Penn State 2-0 in the finals on Sunday, the team found itself in a familiar position — winning the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) title for a third consecutive season.
“I knew the three-peat was a reality when Tannia Hernandez scored the second goal [of the game], essentially crushing Penn State’s chances of getting back into the game,” Head Coach Todd Heil said. “At that moment, I found myself reflecting on the entire season and where this team began to where it is today … a National Champion.”
The Gauchos opened tournament play a bit apprehensively, falling behind the University of Delaware 1-0 in the early going on Thursday. However, in the 30th minute, junior defender Natalie Lemonnier netted the equalizer, and halftime came with the game all tied up.
“[Being down] was a little nerve racking, but we were dominating play before the goal happened and the girls knew they could score on Delaware,” Heil said.
It didn’t take long for the Gauchos to get going once the second half started. In the 47th minute, freshman forward Hannah Bryant scored the go-ahead goal, and in the 65th minute, senior midfielder Chelsey Stewart scored an insurance goal, sealing the win and a guaranteed advancement from pool play.
“We were definitely relieved to know that we were moving on from our pool after our first game,” senior forward Alyssa Doniak said. “We came out really hard, and we finished our opportunities.”
Later that day, the Gauchos played their second game of the tournament and the final game of pool play against the University of Colorado Gold. Unfortunately, they were unable to carry over the momentum from the first game and fell in a 0-1 loss.
“We didn’t come into the Colorado game with enough intensity,” Doniak said. “We knew we were already moving on, and it’s hard to get up for that type of game.”
The next day, UCSB began play in the round of 16 against Cal Poly, the first-place team from pool A. The Gauchos had no trouble corralling the Mustangs, as Doniak scored in the 25th minute and found Stewart 10 minutes later off a corner kick for another score. Neither team scored for the remainder of the game and the Gauchos advanced with a 2-0 win.
“After losing to Colorado and getting shut out, beating Cal Poly and shutting them out was just what we needed to get our excitement back,” Heil said.
In their next game against the University of Michigan, the Gauchos dispatched their opponent relatively easily, scoring early and often to secure a 4-0 win, moving them into the Semifinals. Facing off against UCLA in a battle of defenses, junior forward Tannia Hernandez scored in the 15th minute to give the Gauchos a 1-0 lead that held up for the remainder of the game.
“Heading into the finals, the girls were pumped,” Heil said.
Against Penn State, sophomore forward Laura Capparilli opened the scoring with a goal off a Doniak corner kick in the 20th minute to give the Gauchos an early advantage. From then on it was a back and forth game until the 60th minute, when Doniak again launched a corner kick that found the back of the net off the foot of Hernandez. With a 2-0 lead until the final whistle, the Gauchos had done it once again.
“I know that we deserved the three-peat after everything we’ve been through and all the hard work that we have put in this season,” Doniak said. “Every single player showed so much heart in the final game. … I am so proud of the team.”
Though a third straight championship would likely have been enough of a prize for the team, several Gauchos also secured individual awards. Freshman goalie Carolyn Upton was named goalkeeper of the tournament. After leading UCSB’s offense in scoring with four goals, Stewart was named to the All-Tournament Team along with Hernandez and Capparilli. But it was Doniak who took home the big prize. Aside from scoring a goal of her own, Doniak also assisted in seven other goals, giving her a hand in eight of Santa Barbara’s 12 goals. Consequently, in her final year with the team, she was named tournament MVP.
“I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my senior year,” Doniak said. “Not a lot of athletes can say that they’ve accomplished something like a three-peat, and I feel honored that I was able to be a part of such an amazing team with an awesome coach that pushed us to reach our goals.”