The heat leaves the women unfazed as they run drills on the turf. This time, they’re asked to run close to the goal and pass to a teammate who is expected to score. As each duo of players moves up to finish the drill, the soccer balls go in, one after another. A few miss, but those are just a tad high, or a tad to the side. The accuracy is astonishing. These women running countless drills in the heat are the UC Riverside women’s soccer team, and they are on a roll right now. The team is 10-8-0, with four wins within the Big West and three losses, good enough for third overall in the conference, and have a good shot at claiming their first Big West title ever, which would be historic for the program.
A majority of the players are juniors and seniors who have been with the program for their entire college career. Currently, the team’s top three scorers are midfielder Blanca Barrio, forward Tyler Cunningham and forward Alexa Bustamante, all of whom are seniors or juniors. These girls are going for a legacy, and to prove to the rest of the conference that UC Riverside women’s soccer is a team that has matured into an unstoppable force. Them girls up to something.
Barrio was recently named the Big West offensive player of the week, which is a remarkable feat. Her ability to work in tandem with her teammates and keep the pressure is unparalleled, and this shows in her stats: currently, she is leading the blue and gold in assists, with five under her belt, and is the second highest scorer on the team, with five goals of her own. However, the defensive players have also been a large part of the winning formula, with goalkeeper Elizabeth Silas getting over 57 saves, and was last year one of the defensive leaders of the conference. When asked about being named Offensive Player of the Week, Barrio claimed that, “It comes as a big morale booster for the team and makes us play even harder.”
So far the women’s soccer team has been very dominant on the field, with the chemistry between players working to near-perfection. As Cunningham asserted, “our philosophy is control, make sure to control the tempo of the game and always push forward.” This forward mobility could be seen in the early October game against Hawai’i, in which the Highlanders maintained possession of the ball for the majority of the game. They were pushing the pace, and to little surprise, Blanca Barrio was able to score the first goal in the first three minutes of the game.
While the Highlanders have been playing incredibly well and have a good shot at winning the conference tournament, their goals are actually much greater than that. This team wants to advance beyond the tournament and actually be seeded in the NCAA rankings, a feat that the women’s soccer team has not accomplished before. However, while they racked up two wins against Hawai’i and UC Davis, their last game against Fullerton did not go their way. Speaking of the loss, Silas stated, “Right now we are really focused. The loss against Fullerton showed us what we need to work on and the mistakes we can’t afford to make moving forward.” So far, they have taken their losses in stride and used these losses to clear away some of the chinks in their armor.
This season’s success has been a long time coming, since the team has been slowly inching up in the conference standings. In 2013, the Highlanders were ranked third, while in 2014 they were in the fourth standing in the conference. This shows how the team has been incrementally getting better, and using their losses to learn the mistakes they are making. While there has not been a major overhaul in their training methods, the key to this season’s success has been finding the right chemistry between the players. As Cunningham said, “the dynamics have changed and it’s all come a long way.” The players are communicating more and have reached a point where they can instinctively read their teammates throughout the course of a match. Head coach Nat Gonzalez suggested that, more than anything, the definitive factor has been time, “as they mature and grow a loyalty and a passion for this school is a big part of what we’re seeing.”
The momentum that the UC Riverside women’s soccer team is building has been growing, and they are slowly overhauling traditional Big West powerhouses such as UC Davis and Long Beach State. as they become one of the more dominant teams in the Big West conference. As coach Gonzalez stated, “We are throwing some things at them that are unique, and that these other teams have not seen, and it’s causing trouble for them.”