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Prep Football Preview Special
Prep Football Preview
Game of the Week
Kalani Takase | ScoringLiveJune 3, 2021, 8:46pm
The recently-completed season was a special one by any measure for Kaile Halvorsen and the Santa Clara University women's soccer team.
With their win via penalty kicks over top-seeded Florida State on May 17th in the NCAA Division I College Cup final in Cary, North Carolina, the Broncos laid claim to their first national championship since 2001 and just the second overall in program history.
"It's just a surreal feeling and probably one of the best days of my life," said Halvorsen, a junior forward who just wrapped up her third year on the team.
The 2018 Kaiser High School graduate and former All-Hawaii Offensive Player of the Year has played in 52 games in her Santa Clara career, including all 12 of the Broncos' games this spring.
Santa Clara went 10-1-1 this season, including a 6-0 mark in the West Coast Conference. While the program is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament having made 30 total appearances over the years, including six of the last seven years, its run to the title in 2021 was an unlikely one, to be sure.
Just ask Halvorsen.
"This year has been crazy, especially in Santa Clara Country because in the peak of COVID it was a hot spot," she said.
Strict county regulations were put in place and essentially shut down all sports. The same mandate that forced San Jose State's football team to move its practices 300 miles north to Humboldt State put an end to the Broncos' fall workouts.
"We reported in July to start preseason to start practicing and then our season was canceled so we didn't have a season and we kept practicing for a few weeks up until school started and obviously with no games, nothing to look forward to, it was kind of really hard for myself and just the team in general to be there and it started to go downhill pretty fast," Halvorsen said, in reference to the daily COVID infection counts in Santa Clara County.
"So our coach was just like, ‘OK everyone, you can go home. Let's regroup in the winter, when hopefully we'll have a season, which, we'll see — who knows?,' she recalled.
While numerous other conferences across the country were competing in the fall and winter, the WCC was among those that were not. Things were looking bleak for Halvorsen and the Broncos as far as the prospects of a spring season.
"We were done from September all the way through the end of January, when we got the email that we were gonna start-up again, that we were gonna try and have a season," said Halvorsen, who later recalled the exact date the notification came.
"January 25th," she stated. "And the email was like, ‘Come to school. We're reporting in two weeks. Let's do this thing.' "
After two weeks in quarantine and multiple rounds of COVID testing, finally the Broncos were back in the saddle.
"So we didn't start practicing until almost mid-February, where every other school in the country had played games since fall or started in January and played games, so we were probably one of the last college teams to even get started and we just had so many road bumps and obstacles," Halvorsen recalled.
She noted that outside of being in their place of residence, players were only allowed to be in one of three other places.
"Practice, the grocery store and CVS," Halvorsen explained. "And nothing else."
The rules were explicit and did not allow any room for interpretation.
"We weren't allowed to go to a park, go to the beach or do anything to just decompress and unwind," she added. "We weren't even allowed to see our friends from six feet away with masks on, so it was so hard until thankfully they ended the restrictions, but it was to a point where we were the only school in this so-restrictive bubble and you can ask anyone on my team, everyone was like, ‘There's no way we're all gonna make it through; this is insane, this is hard, this is horrible."
Despite the tight restrictions, COVID still reared its ugly head and led to a number of cancellations of WCC games — including the Broncos' final two regular-season contests against Gonzaga and San Diego.
"So going into the (NCAA) tournament we hadn't played a solid game in about a month and I mean, our starting center-back tore her achilles the week before going to the tournament, so there was just so many obstacles that felt like it was not going to end well, I guess, but I guess it's just a true testament to our team's grit and determination that we ended up with a national championship, so it's been a crazy year and I'm just so shocked with the outcome," Halvorsen said. "For it to turn out the way that it did, I'm really happy — and amazed, honestly."
But while the pay-off — a national championship — was a prized one, to be sure, there was certainly a price to be paid. The restrictions and strict limitations took a toll on the Broncos, particularly when it came to the players' mental health, Halvorsen disclosed.
"It was a huge struggle. Everyone is just kind of like, ‘Oh, it's not that hard, whatever,' and professional athletes they're getting paid and this is their job and their livelihood, but as a college athlete you're still growing up, I guess, trying to figure out what you want to do and you have the added pressure of school and soccer, or any sport you're playing, and it all just in general can be so draining on your mental health, so to be locked away almost felt like prison and the usual coping mechanisms weren't available and it definitely was very tough for me and my whole team," Halvorsen said.
But there was a certain unity in their isolation, she noted.
"I think something that really helped us all get through it was the fact that we were in it together in a sense and that whatever I was feeling I knew that she, or her, or anyone on the team was feeling it as well, so I think talking about it is super important and I don't think it gets talked about enough," she said.
Halvorsen detailed how through social media, she would come across posts from players on other WCC teams seemingly going on with their lives with minimal restrictions.
"You could see everything going on and my team and I would constantly see other teams in our conference going out to parties, or seeing their significant others, their family and that was really tough for us not being able to hug our parents, or see our parents basically, but I think while it was hard, it was definitely a good lesson almost and I'm super proud of myself and my team for getting through that and coming out with a trophy," Halvorsen expressed.
The Broncos played in the NCAA Tournament in each of Halvorsen's first two years with the team. A second-round loss to North Carolina State ended her freshman season. Santa Clara reached the third round of the 64-team tournament a year later, only to fall against Southern California.
Unlike past NCAA tourneys, however, this one was played within a "bubble" and entirely within the state of North Carolina.
The Broncos were seeded 11th overall in the field and drew a first-round bye before opening against Ohio State in a second-round game on May 1st — a game they won handily, 4-1.
They followed that with back-to-back shutouts of Arkansas (2-0) and Clemson (1-0) in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, to punch their ticket to the College Cup — soccer's version of the NCAA Final Four.
"We were there for almost a month," Halvorsen said of the Tar Heel state.
Outside of a few days in Greenville — site of their win over the Buckeyes — the Broncos spent most of their time in downtown Raleigh, some 10 miles East of Cary.
"We were in the same hotel and it was kind of cool. The hotel staff were super awesome. They gave us the whole penthouse floor as a meeting space, a dining space, homework space, so it was nice to kind of have that communal space instead of just being isolated in the hotel room, which definitely gets to you after a while," Halvorsen said.
Santa Clara earned its third trip to the championship game with a 3-1 win over No. 2 seed North Carolina in the semifinals to set-up a match-up against the top overall seed in Florida State four days later.
Halvorsen explained how the Broncos embraced the role of underdogs.
"I think almost every game except Ohio State was an upset (win) and we just used every upset as momentum going into the next game and I feel like that was really the turning point for us because we felt that all year — I mean, even every year I've been here — we've been kind of under-appreciated in a way, whether it be rankings-wise or just, we don't get the credit we deserve, I feel like, and upsetting all these big teams was eye-opening for a lot of people," she said. "Each game we kind of went into it, we were like, ‘You know what? Nobody really expected us to get this far anyway, so if we lose, we lose. But if we win, let's just keep shocking people and keep winning."
The championship final was without a goal until the 63rd minute, when Florida State's Jenna Nighswonger hit the left post with her shot that bounced into the right corner of the net to put her team ahead.
It was the first time that Santa Clara trailed in the NCAA Tournament.
"Going into the match we knew that they were a great team, great players, great coach. We knew that it was going to be and that offensively, they were gonna bring it to us, so after they did score that goal we regrouped and we were like, ‘You know what? We knew this was going to happen. We knew they were going to score. They're a great team, but that doesn't mean that we can't score — that we can't score one, we can't score two, we can't bring it out, you know?' " Halvorsen said.
She went on, "So honestly, I think the goal didn't really faze us that much — although, yeah, it was scary — but we expected it to happen so after we took that goal we just kind of went out with nothing to lose and we were like, ‘Let's just keep going at them. If we lose, we lose — hey, great game — but if we win, that would be it.' "
The Broncos got the breakthrough they needed in the 84th minute, when a defensive miscue by the Seminoles allowed Kelsey Turnbow to take possession of the ball, maneuver around a pair of defenders and get off a left-footed shot past the goalkeeper and into the left side of the net for the equalizer.
The teams were tied at the end of regulation and after two sudden-death overtime periods, which meant the national championship would ultimately come down to a penalty kick shootout.
But while the Broncos had yet to go to PKs all season, the Seminoles had just done so in back-to-back games, their quarterfinal win over Duke, as well as their semifinal triumph over Virginia.
"I think that played to our advantage," Halvorsen pointed out.
Florida State's first two kickers missed their shots before its third finally converted.
"Them hitting the post with the first two kickers really kind of excited all of us and I feel like it was them switching up their shots to avoid the scout report being correct," Halvorsen said.
Conversely, Santa Clara converted all four of its penalty kicks.
"I think our kickers capitalizing on the PKs is tremendously hard, especially in a stadium that was that full and on live television with that pressure, so credit to them; it's not as easy as it looks," Halvorsen said.
𝐌𝐀𝐓𝐂𝐇-𝐖𝐈𝐍𝐍𝐄𝐑‼️#StampedeTogether #CollegeCup pic.twitter.com/aG9SvAqVc8
— Santa Clara Women's Soccer (@SCUWomensSoccer) May 18, 2021
𝐌𝐀𝐓𝐂𝐇-𝐖𝐈𝐍𝐍𝐄𝐑‼️#StampedeTogether #CollegeCup pic.twitter.com/aG9SvAqVc8
The final clincher by Izzy D'Aquila ignited the Broncos' celebration — after the slightest of delays.
"We all didn't really know if we won or not — that's why you can see in the video Izzy looking at the ref — (but) when she sees and she sprints, we lost it," said Halvorsen, who would have been the sixth shooter, or first sudden-death shooter, if necessary.
It was not.
"I just lost my voice immediately from screaming. I think I pee'd my pants honestly I was so excited and just after the initial like, ‘Oh, my God, we just did that,' it's tears of ‘holy crap, we just went through probably more than any other college team,' " Halvorsen described. "Just so proud, and the hugs and the togetherness and then lifting the trophy together."
The Broncos closed out their run to the proverbial top of the mountain with a 4-1 win in PKs following the 1-1 tie in the run of the play to hand the Seminoles (13-1-2) their first loss of the season.
"Going into the game, the game plan probably wasn't the best and we adjusted midway through, but I think that's just a testament to my team's grit and strength to overcome obstacles and I think that was shown all year and all season and especially in that final game, where giving up really wasn't an option and to just leave everything we had out on the field," Halvorsen said.
It marked just the sixth time that the national championship match went to overtime and just the third occurrence that it went to penalty kicks.
Santa Clara, which ended a 19-year gap between titles, picked up four straight wins over top-10 teams (No. 7 Arkansas, No. 6 Clemson, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 1 Florida State).
"This year, this group of girls has been the most cohesive and close group and I think that that chemistry and the on- and off-the-field togetherness really helped us pull through all these challenges and this year was obviously so different because of COVID and usually going into the (NCAA) tournament it's regionalized and we always have to encounter a Stanford or Cal-Berkeley in the beginning rounds — which is super tough games — but since this year it was a true bubble style, I guess, in North Carolina, we played teams we've never played before like Ohio State, Arkansas, all these teams," Halvorsen said.
15' | @kaileee_h scores her second of the day already!#StampedeTogether pic.twitter.com/QjdjTvaBud
— Santa Clara Women's Soccer (@SCUWomensSoccer) March 27, 2021
15' | @kaileee_h scores her second of the day already!#StampedeTogether pic.twitter.com/QjdjTvaBud
Halvorsen has recorded nine points (four goals, one assist) in her career as a Bronco, with half of those goals coming in a 4-0 win over Pacific earlier this season. In her first start of the year, Halvorsen found the back of the net in the 12th and 15th minutes for the first two goals of the contest.
While she is basking in the afterglow of this spring's championship run, Halvorsen is also cognizant that next season — which will return to the fall — will start to ramp-up sooner rather than later.
"It's actually been on my mind a lot," she admitted.
"We got out of the bubble three weeks ago, I think and we already have to return for the fall July 12th," said Halvorsen, who will spend a mere two weeks at her family's Hawaii Kai home before returning to her off-campus home in the South Bay at the end of June.
"So it's definitely been tough to think about that, but thankfully I don't think there's going to be a bubble this coming season, so that's really big and life can be a little bit more like normal than how it was this past season, but yeah, just physically that tournament was long, physically tolling and exhausting," said Halvorsen, who played with a sprained knee ligament throughout the tournament.
"I had to deal with that and now it's not really getting that much better, so hopefully in a few weeks it gets better before next season starts, but definitely I think these coming weeks are going to be about laying low and just trying to recover for my senior season," she laid out.
Not only will the fall mark Halvorsen's senior season, the Broncos expect to lose just two players from the spring roster to graduation.
"We should have a pretty good team next year as well, so I'm really hopeful for next year and hopefully we can get a back-to-back championship," said Halvorsen, who is majoring in biology, with a minor in public health and is expected to graduate next spring.
Although she still has her senior season ahead of her, Halvorsen could opt to come back for a fifth year in the fall of 2022.
"I have the extra COVID year, but I'm not really sure if I'm going to take it yet; I'm still thinking about it," said Halvorsen, whose career aspirations are to become a physician's assistant. "I'm pretty 50-50 on it right now, so I don't really know."
Whatever she decides, Halvorsen knows — and appreciates — that she'll have the support of her family: mom and dad, Tricia and Kit, and brothers, Kalen and Kyler.
"They've been there through it all, through all my bubble mental breakdowns, but I love them and I'm so grateful for them," Halvorsen said.
She is also grateful for her days as a Kaiser Cougar, when she was tabbed All-OIA East Player of the Year as a senior. She led the state with 31 goals scored that season and was also selected as Gatorade State Player of the Year.
"Honestly, for me, high school sports was just about enjoying soccer and playing for the fun of it, whereas club soccer, travel soccer has always been very strict, like you gotta do all these things, but high school soccer has always been like kind of a breath of fresh air," Halvorsen described.
She went on, "High school sports are fun, it's about being with your friends and actually enjoying the sport that you grew up loving. So many times I've been just so burnt out from soccer where I'm like, ‘Do I even like playing? I don't know,' and then you get to high school soccer and you're just like, ‘OK, I get to have fun with it now and no expectations. Let's just play the game that I grew to love.' "
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