Former Puma Johnson aiming for national title

UCSD and former Maria Carrillo defender Hayley Johnson (PHOTO COURTESY OF UCSD).

ByPHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

If UC San Diego women’s soccer coach Brian McManus had promised a travelogue like this to Hayley Johnson when she was still playing at Maria Carrillo High, it would have seemed like a case of blatant overselling.

The Tritons’ postseason run in the NCAA Division II tournament has taken them to sunny Hawaii; vibrant Austin, Texas; and now tradition-steeped Louisville, Ky., where they will face Grand Valley State for the division championship at 9 a.m. (PST) Saturday.

“We’ve been in four different time zones in the past month,” said Johnson, a sophomore defender. “I had never been to Hawaii. That was a fun trip.”

Though Johnson, a three-sport star at Maria Carrillo (she also excelled on the basketball court and running hurdles), was highly recruited by UC San Diego, she arrived at the school over a year ago certain she’d be cut from the soccer team. She finally realized she belonged when intra-squad scrimmages started and she found herself in the starting lineup.

Johnson hasn’t missed a start at left back since. This year, she led the Tritons with 10 assists – Johnson kicks equally well with either foot, and usually handles corner kicks – and was named honorable-mention All-California Collegiate Athletic Association. The UC San Diego defense has been superb all year, and practically untouchable in the postseason, with just one goal allowed in victories over San Francisco State, BYU-Hawaii, Seattle Pacific, St. Edward’s and Saint Rose.

Johnson played for some strong soccer teams at Carrillo, but none of them got past the semifinal round of the North Coast Section playoffs. This is uncharted territory for the sophomore.

It’s nothing new for McManus, though. He led the Tritons to five national championship at the Division III level, and two more after they moved up to Division II – most recently in 2001. He has now won 404 games in 24 seasons at the school.

Johnson knew practically none of that when she signed up to play in San Diego.

“I had no idea about anything at UCSD,” she said. “I really think I’m one of the luckiest soccer players to have ended up with Brian and this group of girls.”

Saint Rose (of Albany, N.Y., the No. 1-ranked team in Division II, outshot the Tritons 9-0 in the first half of Thursday’s semifinal. But UCSD’s Annette Ilg, the only woman on the team from outside of California, broke a scoreless tie in the 56th minute, and the Tritons won, 1-0. Oh, and it snowed during the game. Johnson clearly isn’t in Sonoma County anymore, though her parents – John Johnson and Rochelle Cook – are in Louisville to lend support.

“That Saint Rose team was undefeated. They were good, no doubt,” Johnson said. “We never really considered ourselves the underdog, but I guess we were.”

And 12th-ranked UC San Diego (19-2-3) will be the underdog again when it takes the field at Owsley B. Frazier Stadium to play defending champion Grand Valley State (21-1-2) of Allendale, Mich., in the final. It’s the same situation UCSD’s biggest rival, Cal State Dominguez Hills, was in a year ago. The Tritons want to take it one step further and beat the Lakers.

Then comes the hard part for Johnson – returning to UCSD just in time for finals. For the past month, she has been attending Monday classes, then leaving Tuesday or Wednesday for a road trip. This Monday, two days after the biggest soccer game of her life, she’ll settle in for an economics final.

“I’m so behind, I can’t really catch up,” Johnson said with a rueful laugh. “Luckily, I have friends who can give me notes that I missed. Some professors are understanding, and some not so much.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.