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Ex-Puma Johnson gets one more shot at national college soccer title

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Hayley Johnson will start in the backfield for UC San Diego when the fifth-ranked Tritons take on No.3 Grand Valley State in the NCAA Division II women’s soccer Final Four today. And the ball will be round.

To observe that Johnson will start for UCSD is simply to state the obvious. This will be the Tritons’ 90th game since the Maria Carrillo grad joined them in the fall of 2009, and she has lined up at the opening whistle of the previous 89.

“I didn’t know this, but the coaches knew I’d be starting when I came in as a freshman,” Johnson said by phone from Evans, Ga., site of the Final Four. “I remember telling my parents, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m so scared. I’m going to get cut. Everyone is so good here.’ It turned out to be far from the truth. … I feel blessed.”

UCSD has advanced to the NCAA tournament each of Johnson’s four years, and that is no coincidence. A two-time All-West Region first-team pick, she has been a big part of the Tritons’ success.

And it isn’t just Johnson’s stout defense that makes her valuable. Accurate and able to kick equally well with either foot, she has taken the vast majority of UCSD’s corner kicks and free kicks over the past three years. Partly because of this role (and partly because coach Brian McManus encourages her to gravitate upfield and get involved in the Tritons’ offense), Johnson is tied for fifth in program history with 33 assists.

“Hayley’s one of the most productive defenders I’ve had,” said McManus, who has won 433 games and seven NCAA championships (five in D3, two in D2) in 26 seasons at San Diego. “Her ability to strike the ball with two feet has been incredible for us. … She’s one of the best dead-ball kickers we’ve had at UCSD.”

Now Johnson gets another crack at a national title. Her closest brush came two years ago when UCSD lost in the championship game — to Grand Valley State, today’s opponent. That 4-0 defeat still grates on Johnson, one of four current Tritons who started in 2010.

“We want to go out with a bang,” she said. “And against this team, there’s definitely extra motivation. Honestly, the last time was embarrassing.”

There were extenuating circumstances two years ago. The weather in Louisville, Ky., was frightful. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, and the athletes played through sporadic snow flurries. It did rain Tuesday in Evans (near Augusta and the South Carolina border), but conditions are expected to be mild for the tournament at Blanchard Woods Park, with temperatures in the 60s. In other words, San Diego weather.

Not that this game will be a stroll in the park. Grand Valley State, located in Allendale, Mich., is 20-1-3, a record built on stifling defense. The Lakers lead the nation in goals-against average (.365) and shutout percentage (.75). They have allowed nine goals in 2,220 minutes this season.

Numbers like that put some pressure on Johnson and her mates on the back line. Even a 1-0 deficit might be hard to overcome, meaning any mistake could be deadly.

At least the Tritons won’t be intimidated if the game proves to be a nailbiter. They are on a dizzy run of four consecutive overtime wins in the postseason, a streak that started with a victory over Sonoma State in the CCAA championship game. Johnson clinched that one in penalty kicks, with a ball to the lower left corner of the net against her former local university. UCSD moved on to the D2 championships, beating Seattle Pacific in double overtime, Western Washington in overtime and Colorado School of Mines on penalty kicks.

It’s possible that Johnson’s leadership plays a role in the Tritons’ confidence.

“She’s one of our captains,” McManus said. “She’s not a screamer. She leads by example. The way she talks to players, she doesn’t need to scream or shout. When she talks, she talks sense.”

This year, Johnson’s teammates include two other Redwood Empire products. Sophomore forward Casey Parisi, who transferred after one season at New Jersey Institute of Technology and redshirted for the Tritons last year, plays frequently off the bench. Redshirt freshman Christen Chalmers hasn’t seen as much playing time, but is part of the travel squad in Georgia.

Parisi and Chalmers both played at Montgomery, Maria Carrillo’s most heated North Bay League rival, but Johnson was excited to welcome them last year. She played with Parisi at camps since the two were children, and knew Chalmers, too.

Their days as teammates are dwindling. Johnson, who just this week was announced as an Academic All-America third-team pick for D2 women’s soccer, expects to graduate in the spring with a degree in environmental systems. She carries a GPA of 3.4 and is looking at graduate programs. She is also thinking of trying out as a kicker for the Lingerie Football League, she added with a sheepish laugh.

First, Johnson has some unfinished business — one last shot to cap a stellar college career with a national championship.

“It’s definitely kind of surreal being here as a senior,” Johnson said. “Just knowing it’s for the last time, knowing there’s a definite time period now, that this is my last weekend of college soccer.”

Johnson will miss UCSD soccer. And you know the reverse will be equally true.

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