We Are the Champions

The pandemic stole an entire year of games from them. But they still won it all.


For most of 2020, the Santa Clara women’s soccer team kept off the field—and away from each other—as everyone turned inward to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Teammates were forced to find ways to practice alone, separated and spread out across the country. Those who stayed in California trained through awful smoke as the state battled its worst wildfire season, ever.

They didn’t play a single game all year. When the call came to reunite, the young women sacrificed hugging their parents and hanging out with friends in order to clinch the NCAA women’s soccer national championship.

This is the story of the most unusual title run in collegiate soccer history.

While the Santa Clara women’s soccer team will be remembered for its on-field accomplishments, perhaps the more meaningful milestones happened off the field.

Here’s their story, in their words.


July 12, 2020
In a Bubble

Campus had been closed to most students, faculty, and staff for more than three months when the members of the SCU women’s soccer team were among the first Broncos to return. Though they appreciated the opportunity to train and potentially compete, they faced extremely restrictive conditions. Players couldn’t practice all at once—Santa Clara County public health regulations limited the size of gatherings. First-year students and seniors practiced in one group, and sophomores and juniors in another. Time in quarantine moved slowly, and the world felt small.

Julie Doyle ’21, forward: We only had four places that we could go. It was the Athletic Excellence Center (where we trained), our houses, Walgreens, and Stevens Stadium (where we practiced).

Coach Jerry Smith: We couldn’t be anywhere else, and we had twice-a-week random house checks, basically roll call, to make sure everybody was in and not at their neighbor’s house or the beach or getting a haircut or any of these other things. It really was a very, very tough environment.

Marlee Nicolos ’22, goalie: It was the weirdest thing because we’d see someone, and if they didn’t know we’re in a bubble, or they didn’t know how strict it was, they would try to walk up and hug us, like how you do when you see someone, and we’d have to back away, put a hand up, like “I’m so sorry, I’m not trying to be rude, but like we’re in a bubble.” It’s just the most awkward thing.

“This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my professional life, and I was living at home with my family. These kids were not—they couldn’t see their families. I don’t know how they did it.”

Sally Menti ’24, forward: It was pretty hard being a first-year coming in, having to quarantine in a hotel room for a week by myself, and then coming into practices where it’s only half the team. I was not able to meet the other half of our team for a really long time. I pretty much only saw them when we’re walking by their house, or we’re leaving practice, and they’re coming in. It was really weird.

Doyle: The lowest part for me was definitely the first two weeks, when we were in quarantine, and I had school, and I just was hearing all these rules, that we weren’t allowed to see our family. I called Jerry, and I was like, “I don’t know if I can do it this season. I’m considering opting out.” He talked me into just giving it a try to the end of the month, and I trusted that, and obviously, I want to be here for my teammates, and I don’t want to let them down, so I stuck with it, and I’m so glad I did.

Kelsey Turnbow ’20, MBA ’21, forward: Jerry always said through this process there’s no playbook for COVID and what to do and how to lead a team, and how to overcome these obstacles. As a leadership group, we felt like we were letting the team down sometimes because we just didn’t know how to approach it. Do you say, “Toughen up and push through,” or do you really empathize with one another? How do we get our team to push through but make them feel like what they’re feeling is also very valid because it is a very crazy situation.

Smith: This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my professional life, and I was living at home with my family. These kids were not—they couldn’t see their families. I don’t know how they did it, quite honestly.

Nicolos: We would come up with these fun activities, like let’s make lunch and then have it on the front lawn. It was just the little things that we were trying to find to do to keep our minds off of the bubble and how restricted we were in general. Finding the little things was really important.

Doyle: We looked forward to practice a lot more than I ever have because it was my only time to socialize with my friends. And it was a lot of fun to be able to touch each other and hug each other at Buck Shaw.

Tyler Webster, assistant athletic director, counseling and sport psychology: Athletes are really wonderful at training and planning and getting themselves ready for something. But the added challenge of not knowing if they were even ever going to play was a huge challenge both for the girls and for the coaching staff. We’re going to do all these things, but we don’t know what will come of it. We don’t know if we’ll ever play a game.

Located in one of the strictest counties in the nation for COVID quarantine regulations meant the Santa Clara women’s soccer team had to maintain an impenetrable bubble—training, eating, sleeping, socialization happened with each other, and only each other—to be able to practice on campus.

August 13, 2020
Season Postponed

All of the work to self-isolate and follow rules seemed moot when the West Coast Conference postponed all fall games. The pandemic was raging. A few days later, on Aug. 16, a summer lightning storm sparked wildfires throughout Northern California, and smoke streamed into the Bay Area. SCU halted practices. Many players chose to go home again to be with their families. The Broncos trained on their own: Turnbow practiced with a men’s team in Nash- ville, while Menti trained with a team in Seattle. Nicolos did drills in the park with a friend whose season had also been postponed. Izzy D’Aquila ’23 went to Utah to live with her older sister, while fellow midfielder Alex Loera ’21, M.S. ’21 stayed in the area to babysit. Teams outside of the conference continued to hone their skills in regular matches. For SCU, though, team practice was paused.

Smith: We may be one of the only universities in the country who didn’t play in spring 2020 (because) Santa Clara County was the first county in America to shelter in place. So we are working our tails off in late July, beginning of August, and then pretty much the whole state of California was just on fire. For about 60 or 70 days in a row, we woke up and had to check the AQI (Air Quality Index) on our phone, hoping to have practice but checking the AQI every hour and working with sports medicine: Are we on or not? Can we practice for two hours or one hour? Can we play with 100 percent intensity or 50 percent intensity? Sometimes we would start planning a two-hour practice and 45 minutes into it, sports medicine would come over and say ‘you guys got to shut it down.’ It was a nightmare. So on top of COVID, we also now have the smoky air to deal with.

Nicolos: It was really difficult to be dealing with what we already dealt with in summer, and then on top of that going home and then having that sadness of seeing so many other soccer programs in the East playing.

Turnbow: I felt like I grew a lot during that time. Men’s soccer is just so high speed and they’re aggressive, I had to be able to jump in with them.

Sofia Jones ’21, defender: Marlee was in charge of small groups we called families, and each week she would give us a different challenge. So one week we had to re-create dishes from a Disney movie, so one group did Princess and the Frog and another group did Lady and the Tramp. Another week we had to get on a Zoom call and take the funniest screenshot. My team did The Bachelor, so people were in dresses, and there was host Chris Harrison, and there’s a couple of roses. We found a way to stay connected, even when we were apart.

December 4, 2020
Training Camp, Take Two

The West Coast Conference announced a modified nine-week soccer schedule from February 20-April 17. This would allow teams to participate in the 2020 NCAA tournament, which had been postponed and moved to spring 2021. The Broncos returned to campus for their preseason—again. Through the uncertainty of what would happen next, time moved quickly as the team shoved an entire preseason and season into a few short weeks.

Jones: Originally there was a little bit of doubt and fear, because we knew the bitter taste of having a season canceled because of COVID once, so you know that was sitting in the back of my head. But at the same time, we have this great opportunity. A lot of other teams haven’t been through a bubble. We know how to get through this situa- tion. We’re stronger and tougher, because of what we went through. I think it made us more well equipped and grateful to know that we had some idea of what was going to unfold in the next couple months.

Turnbow: Comparing our first time we came to Santa Clara in June to this, the second go-round, I was just very pleased to see that everyone was in such a healthier state of mind. And I think that we knew how to handle it a lot better. Everyone seemed genuinely happier.

Smith: And finally, in late January, they gave us the thumbs-up. Now most teams have played 10 to 15 games in the fall. Most teams, if not every team, started practicing at the beginning of January. Here we are; we got the green light, and the first practice we had was around Feb. 10.

An entire preseason of training and a full season were shoved into a few weeks at the end of 2020.

Doyle: I was injured for the first couple practices, and so I was sitting out watching them and I walked over to Jerry, and I just remember saying, “Jerry, this team is so good. I can’t wait to get out there and play with them.” And I called my dad after practice. I was like, “This is the most talented Santa Clara soccer team I’ve ever been on.” The chemistry was just unreal. We’re all very similar soccer players, and we knocked the ball around beautifully. And that’s not taught, that just came naturally.

Loera: We realized that anything could still happen, and so Jerry was even saying, “Up until the whistle blows, I’m gonna believe that we’re not going to have a season.” Because he was wanting to keep us in a reality check. So as soon as the first whistle blew, there was a just a huge sigh of relief from our whole team.

February 27–April 3, 2021
Title Team Takes Shape

Six months after they were supposed to, the Broncos started their 2020 season. Though it would be shortened to seven games (four additional games were canceled because of COVID concerns), SCU made the most of it, with two spectacular come-from-behind wins on the road. First, SCU snapped Brigham Young University’s 17-game home winning streak in snowy Provo, giving coach Jerry Smith the 500th win of his career. Then came a double-overtime thriller at Pepperdine, where SCU hadn’t won since 1999.

Smith: BYU has the second-best winning percentage on their home field behind the North Carolina Tar Heels, so even in a normal year when you’re great, BYU is going to be a massive challenge. And it’s our third game of the year, it’s their ninth game of the year. They’ve had maybe seven weeks of practice, we’ve had maybe three.

Turnbow: It’s very difficult to play at BYU with the elevation and their fans. It’s a very unique environment for us. Oh, and it was snowing.

Loera: A lot of the girls are from California, so they’ve never probably played in snow. But me being from Colorado, I sent out a message right before the game: “For those of you who haven’t played in snow and might be nervous, it’s just like playing in the rain.” Honestly, it’s better than playing in the rain because you’re not drenched.

“I think that was the first time we all looked around like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. The Broncos could be pretty good.’”

Smith: We find ourselves down 1-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game and we just looked around like, “Well, what do you expect? They’re so far ahead of us. Let’s keep fighting and just give it a try, but you know there’s no shame in losing at BYU.” Only we didn’t. Kelsey ties the game up, Doyle scores an elite goal for us, and we win this game that is so, so hard to win. I think that was the first time we all looked around like, “Whoa, wait a minute. The Broncos could be pretty good.”

After beating BYU, the Broncos traveled to Pepperdine, perched on the Malibu cliffs above the Pacific. The Waves had bedeviled Santa Clara for decades. When SCU won its first national championship in 2001, its only conference loss was at Pepperdine. And many of the players on this year’s team had their own sour memories there, having missed out on a league title because of a loss at Pepperdine in 2018.

Jones: We actually lost a West Coast Conference title a few years back on that field, so at halftime I pretty much said to the girls, “I have been in this moment and stood on this field before when we had the chance to control whether or not we won the conference and we didn’t do what we needed to get it done and I stepped off the field with regret, and I don’t want that to happen again. I don’t want any of you to ever have to experience that feeling that you could have done more, so right now is the moment to do more and to give it your all, because you’re going to want this back if you don’t.”

Smith: We were down 3-2 and, again, no shame. We couldn’t win there when we won the national championship, so how is this team going to win at Pepperdine late in the game down a goal. Only we did. Kelsey scores a late goal, then she scores an overtime goal, and now we know.

Jones: That’s what kind of sealed our deal to win the conference, and I think, from that point on, to be able to fight from behind and be an underdog and come back from down a goal really showed me that this team was capable of great things.

Still, the regular season wasn’t perfect. SCU lost a late-season rematch against BYU 2-1 on March 31, 2021.

Loera: We knew that we could have given 10 times more than we did. I really don’t know what happened that game, and it was kind of an awakening for our team, because we had won every game up to that point. It’s always good to have a loss to kind of bring you down a little bit.

Webster: It would be very easy to fall apart in that moment, having a crack in the team, which could have easily happened with the COVID situation. Instead, the next day they came together and we sat down for an hour after their practice, and they really led a discussion of, “What was the issue? Let’s not let that happen again.’’ They talked about their communication and supporting one another on and off the field and really set their standards of what they wanted moving forward. And I think it carried them through the postseason.

The Broncos’s first—and only—loss in their fairy tale season came on March 31, 2021, with a 2-1 loss to BYU.

April 3, 2021
The Long Wait

The team’s final two games of the season were canceled when the opposing teams had positive COVID tests, leaving four weeks between the last regular-season game at the University of San Francisco and the first game of the NCAA tournament. Another pause.

“If you wrote the movie script, somebody would throw it away. ‘You didn’t actually have to go through all that.’”

Menti: It was just what we didn’t need. Not being able to play nearly as many games as every other team in the tournament, that sucks. We could only train and scrimmage ourselves, which is not nearly the same as game-like situations.

Turnbow: I would say everyone at some point goes through a phase during the bubble where they’re just not feeling 100%, and I went through that phase around the USF game. I was just feeling isolated. I love being around my teammates but I was seeing them constantly, and typically in a regular year you’re able to hang out with other people outside the team but we couldn’t do that. I was just kind of feeling dour, and Jerry allowed me to take a couple days off from practice and just cheer from the sidelines, and I think that really helped me just take a step back and be able to recalibrate and get back on track. That was very pivotal for my mental health, which ends up translating into better physical performance on the field.

April 19, 2021
Another Obstacle to Overcome

On April 19, Santa Clara found out it earned the No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. The celebration didn’t last long. A few hours later, captain and starting defender Sofia Jones suffered a season-ending injury.

Jones: We had our selection show in the morning, and then we just went straight out to training and a light practice. During a drill, no one was around, no one tackled me. Just out of the blue, I ruptured my Achilles.

Smith: We waited a month between our last regular game and our first tournament game, and then oh, by the way, on the day we learned that we’re going to the NCAA tournament, a four-year starter, senior team captain, best voice on the field, ruptures her Achilles tendon. And so now we have to replace her as well. You couldn’t make this stuff up. If you wrote this movie script, somebody would throw it away. “You actually didn’t have to go through all that.”

Loera: There is a moment of, “Oh, gosh, can we do this? Can we pull together?” It was definitely a challenging moment for sure. But I think she did an awesome job of embracing the role of leader on the sidelines.

Jones: Maybe it’s one more thing they could play for.

April 28–May 17, 2021
One Last Bubble

The early rounds of the NCAA tournament are usually hosted by the top seeds. But the organization didn’t want teams flying around the country between games and increasing their risk of COVID-19 exposure. So the entire three-week event was held in Cary, N.C., just outside UNC in Chapel Hill, which had originally been scheduled to host only the semifinals and finals. As long as Santa Clara kept winning, the players would continue living out of the Holiday Inn in downtown Raleigh. They couldn’t leave except for practices and games.

Doyle: To be honest, we were dreading three weeks in a hotel room, but I think that, our team in particular, was probably more used to that environment than any other team in the country, because we are used to being in such a strict bubble. So it wasn’t that bad for us. We had this team room on the 20th floor and we got creative.

Jones: It was a multipurpose room. It was our snack room, it was our study hall, it was our Mario Kart arcade, it was our dining hall, so all of those things were going on at once. And that was really fun, especially for me. I was almost always up there doing rehab and someone would be there studying or playing a game, so I’d always have someone to cheer me on or talk to.

Izzy D’Aquila ’23, midfielder: One of the best things for us was we got a ton of good-luck videos from friends around campus and a couple of athletic teams, which was really great to see and got some teary eyes from everyone. We had so much support this whole time that we knew that we’d be coming home champions in everyone’s eyes, even if we didn’t win, which was awesome.

May 17, 2021
National Championship

Santa Clara’s first four opponents included three top-10 teams, and every game was against a large state school that hailed from a major conference. But the Broncos disposed of Ohio State 4-1, Arkansas 2-0, Clemson 1-0, and North Carolina 3-1. The Tar Heels, whose 21 national titles are more than all other programs combined, hadn’t allowed one goal in their previous seven games before Santa Clara scored three in the semifinals. All that remained was a game against Florida State.

Smith: Our kids were challenged by being the underdog and challenged by coming from a (smaller) conference and challenged by being a smaller liberal arts school compared to some of the schools we’re playing. And so I think our kids have always had a little chip on their shoulder when it comes to playing these “big schools,” and they looked forward to it.

Menti: Leading up to like the bus ride to the locker room, I was just doing everything I could to control my nerves and just trying to think about, “Soccer is what I love to do,” and just trying to make this game as simple as I could.

Jones: It started with the rain. I feel like that really set the tone for the game. In a year that had so many crazy and unexpected turns, when it started raining I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh and think, “Oh, of course, here’s one more thing.” But I also thought if we could do everything else we did, what’s a little rain?

Smith: To be honest with you, I think Florida State out-coached us in the final. Their tactics were working better than our tactics, but the leadership of our student-athletes, the resiliency of our student-athletes, the toughness of our student-athletes and this attitude of, “We’re not going down today,” it’s amazing when you see that. It’s impossible to coach it, quite honestly. So many things have to come together. If you could bottle it up, you’d be a billionaire.

With less than a half-hour on the clock, Florida State scored the first goal of the game. Per tradition, the Broncos huddled up and focused on keeping calm. Turnbow tied it and the championship came down to a penalty kick shoot-out.

After a scoreless first half, Florida State scored with 28 minutes left on the clock. But Turnbow retaliated with a goal with six minutes left to tie the game score 1-1.

Turnbow: We always come into the huddle after a team scores on us and it’s like, “OK, let’s focus on the next play. We can get it back. There’s plenty of time. Don’t panic.” And I think we did a really great job of that.

Doyle: I probably didn’t help the team much when I had the ball, but I feel like I helped the team by being vocal. I was trying to talk to each person individually, like “Give me seven minutes and like just leave it all out here on the field, and I won’t be upset.”

Turnbow: As the clock started ticking down, I was getting a little bit nervous. Jerry’s always like, “Don’t die a slow death. If you’re going to lose, just go for it.” And so that kind of crossed my mind. Our tactic was to sit back; let them pass—they’re a very possession-oriented team. And we had to change something—we couldn’t die the slow death, and so we started to press their back line a lot higher up the field, and we could feel that they were very uncomfortable. Then one of their defenders misplayed a ball. The girl that I was going against lost track of me. And then the receiver of the ball was caught off guard. So it was just like a whole shake-up on their back line. I was able to read that pass and finished the goal.

Doyle: When she scored that goal, I literally started crying, bawling. And Kelsey was like, “Get it together. There’s a game left.” I just knew the importance of that goal, and I was so relieved and just so thankful that she scored that. I knew that we were back in it, and it was just such a relief.

Loera: Turnbow making that play just lit a fire under everyone. Even the Marshall fans who didn’t go to our school were rooting for us.

Marshall University supporters were in the stands awaiting the next game—the men’s national championship between Marshall and Indiana University. They began cheering on the Broncos, drawn by a small-school program similar to their own. The crowd also included a who’s who of SCU soccer alumnae. Women’s National Team legend Brandi Chastain ’91 was on hand along with Danielle Slaton ’02, Aly Wagner ’02, and Leslie Osborne ’05, members of SCU’s previous national championship team who had booked last-minute flights to North Carolina to attend the final. Their celebrations from the stands provided some of the most memorable moments on the TV broadcast.

Turnbow: Those girls are our idols. They paved the way for Santa Clara women’s soccer. To see them supporting us in the stands and have their Bronco gear, it was so cool. And it means the world to us.

Jones: The energy was insane. One thing we really missed this year was not having fans and not having a crowd.

In the end, it came down to a shootout

Neither team could break the deadlock through the rest of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime. For only the third time ever, the NCAA women’s soccer championship would be decided by penalty kicks. Players would take turns shooting from 12 yards out against the opposing goalkeeper. After five rounds of shots, whichever team had the most goals would win the title. Florida State had gone to penalties in both of its previous two games, making all eight of its kicks. Santa Clara had not been in a penalty shootout all year.

FIRST ROUND, Doyle: It kind of relieved some pressure, knowing that they already had gone through penalty shootouts in the past two games, so (our goalie) had seen the way they kick their PKs and they now are thinking, “Should I change my PK? Should I go the other way?” I got the first kick, which is great—we always want to go first. What I’ve done ever since I can remember taking PKs is I would back up and then, when the whistles blows, I like to wait at least like 10-15 seconds, just to get in the goalie’s head, like, “When is she going to kick it?” And then I approached the ball, really, really slowly and I placed it where I wanted and then, luckily, the goalie dove the other way.

SECOND ROUND, Menti: I was trying every way to control my nerves. I was just focusing my breathing for five minutes. It was the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life. It was just the feeling like I just didn’t want to let everyone down, like my teammates, school, family, whatever, that kind of thinking. But I was confident in my PK. After 15 minutes of just straight nerves, I was just calm, just comfortable, you know. I’ve gone the same way (shooting the ball) the past two years and we’ve been practicing all tournament, so I knew I could do it.

Doyle and Menti made their shots but Florida State’s first two shooters both hit the goalpost, giving SCU a 2-0 lead after two rounds.

Nicolos, goalie: I (dove) the ways that Florida State had previously gone in their PKs. They didn’t go that way against us, but it’s OK. You know, it worked out for the best. I like to think I intimidated them a little bit, but who knows.

THIRD ROUND, Turnbow: A few days prior I was changing my PK because I didn’t like the way it looked. I was actually shooting right-footed and then a couple days before I’m like, “Nope, I’m going to shoot it left foot.” The fact that I had to actually take one after changing it so soon to the game was a little bit nerve-wracking. But they ended up missing their first two PKs and that gave me a sense of relief. I was like, “OK there’s a little bit of margin of error that I can miss my PK, hypothetically, and we’ll still be OK.” I didn’t take my best PK in the world, but it went in. Thankfully the goalie dove the wrong way.

After Turnbow scored to make it 3-0, FSU made its next shot. SCU just needed its next shooter to score to seal the championship.

FOURTH ROUND, D’Aquila: We had talked about who wanted to go where, so I said one through three, because that’s just normally where I set up for PKs. But Jerry told me that he wanted me to go fourth just to have me as a level head in there, because I like pressure moments. After (scoring) I can’t even describe the feeling. Just complete relief, excitement, joy, tears—it was all happening at once.

It was fitting SCU won the championship on penalty kicks, considering the most famous penalty kick in U.S. history was made by a Bronco. After Brandi Chastain clinched the 1999 World Cup with a successful PK against China, giving host USA a 5-4 win, she tore off her jersey and fell to her knees. Chastain celebrating in her black sports bra is one of the most memorable images in U.S. sports.

D’Aquila: It’s just exhilarating. We were all exhausted, but it was a great reward at the end. I couldn’t take my shirt off. I just saw my opportunity to slide, which was super fun, and the dogpile at the end is awesome and just getting to embrace all my girls.

Loera: It was better than I expected. I don’t even know what I expected, but it was perfect.

Turnbow: The first time that I actually got to hug my family in four months was after the championship game, and that was a very special moment because we had been deprived of that for so long. (The players) consider one another sisters and I trust every single one of those girls with my life. But you can’t replace family.

Spring–Summer 2021
We’re No. 1

If someone wrote an article at the end of the season, what would you want them to write? That was the question posed to the Broncos by Tyler Webster, the sports psychologist, at a team meeting before the tournament. They responded: A team that overcame the odds. Champions, of course. But also a team that faced down all kinds of adversity along the way. Every championship is exhilarating in its own way, but no championship team—ever—had dealt with the obstacles posed by 2020.

Menti: No other county had as strict guidelines as we did. It’s just made every single win that much more rewarding because of how hard we put into being where we were. It took me a while for it to completely set in. Five or six days after (the championship game), I was still in shock. It’s still very hard to believe that we did that.

Smith: There’s 50 or 100 just completely valid reasons for our team not to win the championship, to opt out, give in, give up, settle, “Oh darn, sorry, it was out of our control.’’ And our staff never did it, and our players never did it. And that to me was just so, so impressive. It really only would have taken one or two people to settle and you don’t get the championship. Just nobody in our group settled.

Jones: It’s taught me so much about staying in the moment and enjoying the moment, because so many times I would think, “When is this bubble over? This has been so hard.” But seeing the alumni at our game cheering us on and being there with the girls that won the tournament really made me realize that someday we’re going to be those alumnae in the stands looking back on this experience.


May 19, 2021
A Tradition Made

At the pandemic-safe celebration welcoming the team back to campus, elementary-aged girls cheered from the Stevens Stadium stands, shaking pompoms. Someday, after growing a little taller, they could take that field them- selves. And surely the 2020 national champions would return to cheer them on to victory—again connecting generations of greatness in women’s soccer. In the meantime, the field hosts the NCAA tournament in December.

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