Women’s soccer: Diverse roads to a title


It’s a common dilemma for the graduating high school athlete: Choose the most prestigious college program that makes you an offer, or opt for a low-profile school where you are likely to get a lot more playing time.

Belden Long went big-pond. Victoria Kovatch went small-pond. Recent events make it hard to argue with either of them.

Last Saturday, Kovatch helped the Azusa Pacific University women’s soccer team win the National Christian College Athletics Association championship in Kissimmee, Fla. The next day, Long’s UCLA women’s soccer team claimed the coveted Division I title in Cary, N.C.

“Even today, I woke up and I was like, did that really happen?” Long said Tuesday. “I talked to guys from the baseball team (who won their own NCAA championship in June), and they said it won’t really hit you for about four months.”

These two soccer girls have been linked before. They used to be North Bay League opponents, Long at Ursuline/Cardinal Newman and Kovatch at Maria Carrillo, and remember one another well. They shared All-Redwood Empire first-team honors in 2011, when Long was a senior and Kovatch a junior.

Long got attention from Harvard, Long Beach State and Santa Clara that year. She chose UCLA, one of the premier soccer programs in the country.

“I knew that if I didn’t, I’d always wonder,” Long said. “I wanted to challenge myself and be with the best of the best, to reach my full potential. I think you’re only as good as who you’re playing against or the students you’re in class with. UCLA is a school that could do that in all aspects.”

The downside is that Long’s playing time has been limited. UCLA recruits high school All-Americans, junior national teamers, even players with Olympic experience. A center-back defender, Long played in one game as a freshman, two as a sophomore. Those appearances came early in the season, when stakes were low. Watching from the bench was a different sort of challenge for someone who was named NBL defensive player of the year as a high school senior.

“You can’t really prepare yourself for that, but working hard helped me find myself,” Long said. “It instilled my positivity.”

Playing for a first-year coach, Amanda Cromwell, the Bruins lost just one game all season, to North Carolina on Sept. 6. They stormed through Pac-12 play, and showed more than a little resolve in the late stages of the NCAA tournament. UCLA reached the Final Four by upending UNC in overtime, then beat Virginia on penalty kicks in Cary. The championship against Florida State also went into OT, and the Bruins prevailed on a goal by Kodi Lavrusky in the 97th minute.

Along the way, Long stopped fretting about her playing time.

“I was always finding that balance between being a supportive teammate but wanting to play,” the sophomore said. “But at the Final Four it was all about the team. In 20 years, no one is gonna say, ‘How many minutes did you play?’ The team won.”

This was UCLA’s 110th collegiate athletic championship, the most of any school, and its first in women’s soccer.

Azusa Pacific cannot boast such a storied sports history. In fact, Kovatch had barely heard of the university when the soccer coach there contacted her. She was looking at UC San Diego, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the Air Force Academy, but she fell in love with the atmosphere at Azusa, which is about 15 miles east of Pasadena, and was content to join a Division II program.

“I realized I’d get way more playing time in D2,” Kovatch said. “D1 pretty much owns you. I just looked at it realistically.”

Playing at Azusa Pacific took Kovatch far from the spotlight, but it allowed her to make immediate contributions as a freshman this year. She played substantial minutes from the beginning and even started a couple games at forward, though she had been a midfielder at Maria Carrillo. Then Kovatch got a concussion and sat out three weeks during a key stretch of games. She had a hard time reclaiming her position when she returned.

By the time the Cougars got deep into the NCCAA playoffs, though, she was back in the mix — despite rolling her ankle against Houghton College in the first round of the championships.

“I was on crutches. I couldn’t walk, for that day and the next day,” Kovatch said. “I started to make myself walk because I wanted to play.”

And she did. After sitting out one game, Kovatch played in the national semifinal and final. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Azusa, which had 16 new players on the roster. Instead, the Cougars went 10-1-1 in the PacWest Conference, then won four games in five days at Kissimmee, including a 2-1 overtime win against Dallas Baptist in the final. Long’s championship game featured temperatures in the low 30s in North Carolina; Kovatch’s was in the high 70s in Florida, and was just as draining.

“Our coach is still raving about it,” Kovatch said. “We’re all pretty pumped. They hadn’t won since 1998. It’s awesome to be a part of. … The way we pushed through took a lot of mental toughness.

Azusa Pacific has been transitioning to Division II, and next year will be eligible for D2 postseason play. UCLA women’s soccer, meanwhile, will be gunning for championship No. 111 — or whatever number the Bruins are on at that point.

“We’ve got a week off for finals. And everyone is excited for practice when we get back,” said Long, who is majoring in psychobiology on a premed track. “It’s like fuel to the fire. We’re so excited for next season.”

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

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