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Under new coach, UCLA soccer finally makes good on star talent

Margueritte Aozasa is the first coach to win an NCAA women's soccer title in their debut season. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

UCLA won their second national championship on Monday night, but the takeaways from the match rightfully focused on the firsts.

Margueritte Aozasa became the first coach in women’s college soccer history to win an NCAA title in their first year on the job, as UCLA became the first team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in a championship victory, 3-2 over North Carolina in extra time.

The game itself was tightly contested, until Avery Patterson — UNC’s leading scorer — opened the floodgates with a brace after halftime to put the Tar Heels on the verge of their 23rd title. The result appeared all but settled with 10 minutes left in regulation, when UCLA’s Lexi Wright scored off a rebound to put her team back in it. With momentum behind them, the Bruins equalized off a controversial set piece that sent multiple players and the ball into the goal with only 17 seconds left in regulation.

By the second period of overtime, UCLA had made the comeback not only in scoring but also in belief, as a game that seemed destined for penalty kicks was saved from a tiebreaker by Maricarmen Reyes’ championship-winning goal.

The contest served up all the championship-level drama fans could want, and for UCLA, it also served as a breath of fresh air. The Bruins are known as a breeding ground for professional-ready talent, but before Monday night, they had only put all the pieces together for an NCAA championship once in 2013.

Jill Ellis recruited star players like Sydney Leroux and Lauren Holiday to UCLA during her tenure as head coach from 1999-2010 but never won a championship. She ultimately passed the program on to Amanda Cromwell to join the U.S. youth national teams, before eventually taking the reins of the U.S. women’s national team in 2014 and leading them to two World Cup titles.

The 2013 squad that went all the way to a title featured a host of World Cup champions and NWSL standouts alike. USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis headlined the group, but the roster also contained Gotham’s Taylor Smith, Houston’s Caprice Dydasco, Chicago’s Sarah Woldmoe, Orlando’s Megan Montefusco and Darian Jenkins, North Carolina’s Katelyn Rowland, and New Zealand international Rosie White.

That the Bruins could only turn what would now be considered a very competitive professional team into one national championship always proved puzzling, as did the team’s continued drought despite more years of quality talent. Former Bruins like Mallory Pugh (albeit for only one year), Ashley Sanchez, Hailie Mace, Jessie Fleming and Teagan Micah have all gone on to represent their national teams. Mia Fishel, who successfully made the early leap to the pro’s with UANL Tigres, might not be far behind.

Those teams from 2015-19 came up against a Stanford juggernaut with professional-level talent of its own and Aozasa on the sideline as a Cardinal assistant coach. She took over for Cromwell at UCLA in 2022 after Cromwell left the university for the head coaching position of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride and brought assistant coach Sam Greene with her. Cromwell’s tenure ended prematurely after an NWSL and NWSLPA joint investigation substantiated allegations of retaliation by her coaching staff (which Cromwell denies.)

Under Aozasa, UCLA immediately flourished. Senior Sunshine Fontes, a highly touted recruit who played limited minutes in 2021, emerged this season as the Bruins’ leading scorer and notched a key assist Monday night to get UCLA back in the game. And this time, when a UCLA team full of rising talent faced adversity in the biggest moment, the stars of tomorrow stepped up.

Reilyn Turner scored in UCLA's semifinal and championship victories. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Junior Reilyn Turner, who trains with Angel City FC in the offseason and became Nike’s first-ever NIL signing last December, scored the equalizer to send UCLA into extra time. Reyes, a graduate student and Mexican national, bridges the gap between the Bruins’ underclassmen and those highly talented UCLA classes who couldn’t quite get the ball over the line. In a fitting ending, she scored the game-winner to officially close the chapter on that Bruins era and push the new one wide open.

“With this new staff, we’re just able to play freely,” Fontes told the Daily Bruin in October. “It’s taken a lot of work behind the scenes, but this new staff has kind of just come in and changed the whole dynamic of this team.”

In college soccer, star talent goes a long way, but sometimes collective belief goes just a little bit further. Down two goals with less than 15 minutes left in a championship game, UCLA didn’t always play the prettiest soccer, but by all means necessary, they finally lifted the program’s second championship trophy. For Aozasa, it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s the first of many.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.