Our improbable plot line: Two athletes face off in an international tournament on the far side of the globe. Each dramatically scores a critical point for her nation, including one that clinches the win and a semifinals spot for her team. Months later, former foes don the same university colors. This isn’t fiction. It’s the tale of Kelcie Hedge ’19 and Maria G. Sanchez ’19, members of the Under-20 U.S. and Mexico national soccer squads, respectively—and now Bronco teammates.
The connections don’t end there. These sophomore soccer players first met on a pitch during the Under-20 Women’s World Cup played in November 2016 in Papua New Guinea. But they grew up at opposite ends of the same state.
“After the World Cup, I had a coach telling me: ‘Oh, wow, two players from Idaho scored,’” says Hedge, 20, a communications major. “Honestly, it’s so crazy, because I didn’t even know Maria before that game.”
Hedge grew up in Post Falls in northern Idaho, 25 miles east of Spokane. Population: approximately 32,000. Sanchez’s hometown, American Falls, is at the southeast corner of the state, perched alongside the Snake River a half-hour from Pocatello. It’s even tinier, with about 4,500 residents.
As a youngster, Sanchez learned to dribble and feign passes on the middle school soccer field that faces her family’s front door. She tagged along with her brother, six years her senior, and his pals, scrimmaging and taking shots on goal, up to three hours a day. She was the only girl in the mix. But she says it wasn’t until she joined the high school girls soccer team—she never played club soccer—that it clicked: Her skills were far above the norm. For those who have seen her play for her parents’ homeland (both were born in Mexico), there’s no doubt her deft footwork and on-goal shots are impressive—and only getting better. In the opening weeks of play for Santa Clara, Sanchez led the team in points, for combined assists and goals scored.
TWO GOALS, ONE WIN
During that Papua New Guinea matchup, Sanchez blasted in Mexico’s only goal, a left-footed hook off a penalty kick. Hedge, too, was a standout for her side in the quarterfinal game.
In the third minute of stoppage time, with the score stuck at 1–1, a U.S. winger dribbled up the right flank, ditched her defender and served the ball into the goal box. A perfectly positioned Hedge sprinted right but scooped the ball left—sending it straight past the goalie and into the far low corner of the net, for a last-minute U.S. win.
“It’s a great memory—for her,” says Sanchez, 21, adding that a good-natured rivalry persists between her and Hedge in training. “We always tease each other, but it is really nice having my rival for my country be my teammate.”
Hedge, too, is grateful to be joining forces with Sanchez.
“She’s definitely someone you want on your team,” Hedge says. “She’s so technically good and smart in her play. She’s definitely a good goal scorer.”
As for her own skill set, Hedge says she’s known for an ability to drive the ball, connecting with the through-ball and finding an open player to pass to. In the off-season, she always keeps her gray-and-green Nike soccer ball nearby and can be found—headphones on—dribbling and shooting the ball at a neighborhood high school.
GOOD TOWARD GREAT
Both Hedge and Sanchez are transfer students—central midfielder Hedge from University of Washington, striker Sanchez from Idaho State University. And both emphasize how quickly they grew attached to their tight-knit Broncos soccer family.
“We are so united as one,” Hedge says. “We want to do the best for each other. I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Sanchez agrees that the Broncos feel like a unified force.
“We do a lot of team activities off the field,” Sanchez says. “We go watch a movie as a team; there’s a Tuesday deal at Santana Row. Anything we do gets put in a group message [and invitation]. We always want to do things as a team and show respect for the team.”
Coach Jerry Smith’s record of nudging good players toward greatness—and professional careers—attracted both women to Santa Clara. He’s helping Hedge hone mental strength to tough it out on off days. Sanchez is looking to refine her technical skills.
“Jerry’s an excellent coach, and he’s trying to help me become better, connecting all the little pieces,” says Hedge, who’s got a hefty list of aspirations beyond her Broncos career. “I would love to go pro after graduation. My dream is to make the women’s national team. My next ambition is to play for the Under-23 team.”
As an experienced international player, Sanchez—who also played for the main Mexico national squad in the 2015 Women’s World Cup—hopes to play professionally overseas in Germany or France. But first, she wants to rack up more World Cup field time; she only stepped onto the field for 15 minutes in Canada, site of the last World Cup.
“I was really distracted by the crowd,” she says, noting she subbed in during Mexico’s match against England, a 2–1 loss for her side. “I had only been on the national team for a month. Going in, seeing myself on the big screen: It was unreal. It was all I was working for, but it all came so fast.”
Now, she’s looking for a World Cup repeat, with a Broncos assist. “College could help me get there,” Sanchez says.
Hedge, too, aims to make the most of her time wearing Santa Clara red-and-black alongside Sanchez.
“Now we get to be teammates, and we want to win a championship together.”
Meantime, the friendly rivalry continues. In Hedge’s vision for a World Cup rematch these foes-turned-family members will once again face off, but on a bigger international stage.
“That would be great,” she says. “She’d play for Mexico, I’d play for the U.S., and we’d play in the full World Cup.”
Watch highlights and goals scored by Kelcie Hedge ’19 and Maria G. Sanchez ’19 in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup USWNT vs Mexico match (November 2016)