The Santa Clara cheering section at WakeMed Soccer Park was full of familiar faces. Former Broncos stars Brandi Chastain, Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton, and Leslie Osborne all traveled to Cary, N.C. to support their alma mater.
On Monday, a new group of Santa Clara players etched their names into the Broncos history books, defeating Florida State on penalty kicks to claim the national championship.
Santa Clara earned their second national title in program history, joining the 2001 group that included Osborne, Wagner, and Slaton. It is also the second championship for head coach Jerry Smith in his 34th year leading the program.
After regulation and extra time finished 1-1, the Broncos dominated the penalty shootout, converting all four of their attempts to win the shootout 4-1. The 11th seeded Broncos dealt top-seeded Florida State their first loss of the season, denying their bid to become the first unbeaten national champion in history.
After a scoreless first half, FSU’s Jenna Nighswonger broke the deadlock with a beautiful curling effort in the 63rd minute, and Kelsey Turnbow equalized for Santa Clara with seven minutes to go to bring the match to overtime.
Each of Florida State’s first two PK attempts missed off of the goalpost to SCU goalkeeper Marlee Nicolos’ left as the Broncos scored on their first three attempts. Gabby Carle scored for Florida State to keep the shootout alive, but Izzy D’Aquila calmly scored to FSU goalkeeper Cristina Roque’s left to clinch the championship for Santa Clara.
Both teams came out with energy, producing good buildup play in the midfield, but neither team could play a final ball to set up a good scoring chance. It was over 20 minutes before Santa Clara earned the match’s first corner when Turnbow raced down the left flank. Both teams were cautious and put many players behind the ball when defending and looking to counter quickly when they took possession.
The first chance of the match came in the 26th minute. Florida State forced a turnover in the final third and Kristen McFarland was through on goal, but her touch was heavy and the ball was cleared away for a corner.
Two minutes later, Florida State called for a penalty when Claire Robbins was brought down by Turnbow in the box, but referee Christina Unkel waived the penalty shouts away, much to the displeasure of the FSU supporters.
After sustained pressure from Florida State, Santa Clara finally broke out of their defensive end, and created their first dangerous chance when Turnbow darted into the box. FSU goalkeeper Roque leaped to save Turnbow’s shot and keep the match scoreless.
That was the last clear-cut chance of the match, and the teams headed to the locker rooms in a scoreless tie. Florida State was unable to capitalize on the 71% possession they enjoyed in the first 45 minutes.
FSU started the second half on the front foot as they earned an early free kick from a dangerous position. The ball into the box was dangerous, but after a scramble in the box, Broncos goalkeeper Nicolos was fouled as she leaped for the ball.
Ten minutes into the half FSU threatened again when Nighswonger sent a dangerous ball into the box for Carle, but Carle pushed her shot high and wide.
Santa Clara settled into a low block, content to let Florida State keep the ball as the Broncos’ back line repeatedly came under pressure. With Santa Clara daring Florida State to break them down, FSU could not produce many dangerous scoring chances despite having nearly all the possession and pushing all ten field players into the attacking half.
Florida State nearly broke through in the 57th minute when Yulie Zhao slipped through the defense, but her touch was heavy, allowing Nicolos to push it out of danger as the Broncos regrouped.
Jerry Smith urged his team forward, trying to get service to dynamic forwards Turnbow and D’Aquila, and the Broncos finally had a sustained spell of possession around the 60th minute. Entering the match, Turnbow and D’Aquila had combined to score 17 of Santa Clara’s 29 goals on the season.
Florida State’s breakthrough finally came in the 63rd minute with a moment of individual brilliance. Nighswonger collected the ball just outside of the box, brought the ball onto her left foot, and curled a beautiful shot off the inside of the far post and into the net. After 304 scoreless minutes for FSU, the drought ended with a truly spectacular goal. It was the first time the Broncos had trailed in the NCAA tournament.
Santa Clara changed their formation to a back three in an effort to get forward, and WCC Freshman of the Year Sally Menti put a shot just over the bar in the Broncos’ first venture forward after conceding.
Minutes later Kailie Halvorsen dribbled through the FSU defense and played a ball through the six yard box, but no one could get on the other end of the cross at the back post.
The Broncos kept pouring forward and produced their first shot in over 40 minutes from a corner kick when Turnbow’s well-placed ball in was headed over the bar by Skylar Smith.
Florida State thought they had put the game away when Zhao found the net after a through ball from Nighswonger, but the flag was up signaling offside, keeping the Broncos in the match.
The Broncos made the most of their reprieve. Turnbow, starved of service for most of the match, pounced on an errant pass and turned FSU defender Emily Madril before firing a left-footed shot past Roque to bring Santa Clara level with seven minutes left.
Florida State nearly snatched the lead right back when Nighswonger sprung free for a shot from the center of the box, but her effort was deflected over the bar by McFarland.
Five minutes later, the clock ticked down to zero and the match headed to extra time.
The first clear chance of extra time came for Florida State late into the first extra period, when Jody Brown’s shot was deflected out for a corner. Nervous moments for the Broncos followed as the ball bounced around in the box in front of Nicolos, but D’Aquila eventually cleared it away.
Zhao came inches away from the winner a minute later when her looping effort ricocheted off the crossbar and out.
Zhao then slipped McFarland through on goal and Nicolos was barely able to grab possession of the ball near the goal line.
Santa Clara had narrowly escaped once more, and they certainly welcomed the whistle signaling the end of the first half of extra time after minutes of Florida State pressure.
The game became chippier in the second extra period, with Jaelin Howell and Lauren Flynn receiving yellow cards for Florida State after hard fouls and Zhao being booked for dissent.
Santa Clara could not capitalize from a free kick after the Flynn yellow card, as Alex Loera drove her shot into the wall.
After one final FSU cross that was claimed by Nicolos, the whistle blew and the match headed to penalty kicks. It was the second consecutive national championship to be decided on penalties and the third all-time.
In the shootout, Santa Clara quickly took control (with some help from the post), and when D’Aquila scored to end it, she was mobbed by her teammates on the field. The team then ran towards the stands to celebrate with their fans, including the Broncos’ heroes from 20 years ago.