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How a rookie head coach led UCLA soccer to new heights

Marguerite Aozasa has guided the Bruins to the third-most wins in the NCAA this year. (Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

UCLA head coach Margueritte Aozasa was in her office with her assistants on Nov. 8 when she saw that her player, sophomore Lilly Reale, was named the Pac-12 Defender of the Year. Half an hour later, Aozasa received the news through social media that she had won Coach of the Year.

The first rookie coach to win the honor, Aozasa has led the Bruins to a 17-2 record in the regular season and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And on Monday, they will compete in the College Cup final.

“It’s humbling,” she said of the award. “While I’m honored that this is an individual recognition, I really need to start a petition for it to be called ‘Staff of the Year’ because I’m just so thankful for my assistants and all our support staff. They really make my job possible.”

Aozasa is in her first year, but she’s familiar with what it takes to run a successful program. Having coached since she was 19 years old, Aozasa was an assistant at Stanford for seven years, guiding the team to two NCAA titles in 2017 and 2019 along with five Pac-12 titles from 2015-19.

She took over the Bruins program from Amanda Cromwell, who left to become head coach of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride but was placed on administrative leave less than two months into the season. A joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association later substantiated claims of retaliatory behavior, leading to Cromwell’s termination.

Aozasa, a two-time captain and four-year starting defender for Santa Clara, wanted to turn UCLA into as much of a defensive powerhouse as an attacking engine. Her goal was to make the Bruins one of the best defensive teams in the country, and that’s exactly what they became. UCLA registered 12 shutouts in 19 games, their goals-against average of .474 tied for fourth in the nation, and Reale was named UCLA’s second-ever Pac-12 Defender of the Year.

Reale’s honor, especially, was a testament to the defensive strides UCLA made this year.

“She’s an incredible person and just very steady for us,” Aozasa said. “I think as a defender, it’s sometimes hard to gain recognition, especially on a good team.”

Off the field, the ingredients to UCLA’s recipe for success have been honesty and trust.

“I think transparency is really an expression of respect in a lot of ways,” Aozasa said. “And we try to be accessible and compassionate. I think those are really values of our staff, and so we’ve created a very strong, supportive, empowering environment for our players to play within it.”

After she was hired in the last week of 2021, Aozasa started out by meeting with every single player, sometimes for an hour. The chats were free-flowing. She wanted to know everything so she could assess how best to move forward.

“What’s your previous experience?”

“What do you want to get out of this?”

“What type of player are you?”

“What are your tendencies?”

She’d then explain her own goals, the changes she wanted to make to the team’s system and the identity she wanted the program to have.

“Everything we’ve done thus far starts with those relationships,” Aozasa said.

The trust the Bruins built during the preseason is reflected in their chemistry on the field, where they play without fear of making mistakes. A fun-loving group that laughs and dances through pressure-filled situations, the players embraced the staff from day one, which allowed Aozasa to introduce her plans quickly.

They also got closer through hard times. Just two months after Aozasa joined UCLA, she received the news that her former goalkeeper, Stanford’s Katie Meyer, had died by suicide.

“When she passed, the news was just … I hit the floor,” Aozasa said. “It just was so shocking. It was so upsetting.

“But in a weird way, her death and the conversations we had stemming from that as a team really accelerated the process of our team, building that trust between our staff and players.”

One of Aozasa’s goals has been to create an environment where mental health is a high priority. Meyer’s death not only opened conversations about mental health and challenges that student-athletes were facing, but it also brought Aozasa’s own mental well-being into sharp focus. And her players and the athletic department were there to help.

Two days after Meyer passed, one of UCLA’s older players called Aozasa.

“Margueritte,” the player said, “we talked as a team. You need to know that if you need to go there, we’re OK.”

“I was like, ‘Wow. Like, wow,’” recalled Aozasa. “I had not been there that long. I was so struck by the team’s support as I went through that loss personally.”

There were times Aozasa missed training to go to Stanford because that’s what she needed in those moments.

When UCLA kicked off its season in mid-August, the Bruins were closer than ever and ready to play for each other. In just their fourth and fifth games, they beat the top two teams in the nation, Duke followed by North Carolina and 21-time national champion coach Anson Dorrance.

Aozasa and Reale had six other Bruins join them on the Pac-12 awards list. Also named to the first team were forward Reilyn Turner — Nike’s first student-athlete signed to an NIL deal — and defender Quincy McMahon, while goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy and midfielder Sunshine Fontes received second-team honors. Forward Ally Cook, freshman midfielder Ally Lemos and midfielder Maricarmen Reyes were named to the third team. Lemos and midfielder Sofia Cook made the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.

UCLA kicked off the NCAA tournament with a 4-1 win against Northern Arizona, then advanced on penalties against Central Florida. They beat Northwestern, Virginia and Alabama in succession to reach the championship match at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

“Try not to let it get bigger than it is, so that it doesn’t distract from what we’re really trying to do,” Aozasa said. “Can we play how we know we can play and bring some joy in the game, even though it is kind of a pressure-filled situation?”

Last year, UCLA lost to UC Irvine in the first round after winning 16 games in the regular season. On Monday night, all eyes will be on the No. 1 Bruins to see if they can not just flip the script but clinch the NCAA title, with the 2022 Pac-12 Coach of the Year leading the way.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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