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Gonzaga University Athletics

‘Our destiny is in our hands’: Gonzaga women’s soccer set to host Santa Clara as three teams vie for WCC title

Gonzaga’s Giana Riley, center right, celebrates with teammates. Riley is third in the West Coast Conference with nine goals this season.  (Courtesy Gonzaga Athletics)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

A record-breaking offense is gearing up for one of its biggest tests, potentially in the history of the Gonzaga women’s soccer program.

The Bulldogs (11-3-1) have a home matchup Sunday at noon against Santa Clara, the three-time defending West Coast Conference regular-season champion. The Broncos (11-3-2) have also secured the WCC crown 13 times since 1993, the most in the conference.

The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

“Santa Clara is a program that we’ve, frankly, I think we beat them one time in the last 35 years,” GU head coach Chris Watkins said. “And so, it’s a big game, for sure. For us, we’ve got to make sure we just play and be who we are, and not get caught up in that event.”

The Zags are 1-25-3 against the Broncos with their lone win, a 2-1 victory, in 2007. In 2022, GU forged a scoreless tie with the Broncos.

“They’re a great team, no doubt,” Watkins said of Santa Clara.

Watkins said he doesn’t see a weakness in Santa Clara’s game, but what they’re known for is keeping the ball exceptionally well and holding their shape on the defense.

The Broncos have won two national titles (2001, 2020) and were runners-up in 2002

.

“I’m not sure where we beat them except grind it out,” Watkins said.

The Zags have scored 49 goals and given up 19. The Broncos have scored 35 and given up 10.

In the West Region rankings, Gonzaga is No. 2 and its opponent is No. 1. Nationally, the Bulldogs are No. 30 and Santa Clara is No. 15.

GU, SCU and Pepperdine are all tied atop the WCC at 4-1-0 as all three teams have three matches remaining. After the Broncos, the Zags host Loyola Marymount on Wednesday, followed by Pepperdine on the road on Saturday.

“I think it’s exciting that our destiny is in our hands,” GU sophomore forward Giana Riley said. “If we win, we have a high chance of winning the WCC. And if we lose, there’s still a chance, but being able to control that with this game is just exciting.”

Riley is third in the WCC with nine goals, the fifth most for a season in GU history. She is second in the WCC with 24 points – fourth most in a season in GU history.

During practice on Tuesday, Watkins called one of Riley shots a “world-class goal” from 20-plus yards out that was perfectly placed in the upper corner of the goal.

“ Giana, she’s a special talent,” Watkins said. “No doubt she has great speed, great athlete, but probably more than that she sees and understands the game really well. And that’s the part that’s been so fun about getting to know her over the last year and a half. She just is a really smart, cerebral player.”

On Sunday, the Bulldogs top goal is to score first and hold the lead before the halftime whistle.

They are 9-0 when scoring first this season. Under Watkins, GU is 50-2-2 when leading at the half.

The Zags’ offense is their strength. Their 3.27 goals per game are second in the nation behind Texas, which sits at 3.28.

Their secondary offensive stats are also strong: No. 4 in shots on goal per game (9.80) and No. 10 in assists per game (2.73).

They also lead the WCC in every major offensive category including goals, assists and shots.

“We have a good system that scores a good amount of goals,” Watkins said. “And we have players that are really talented.”

In soccer, forwards often find spaces in and behind the defense, but many times they rely on passes to give them scoring opportunities.

One GU defender who provides that is junior Kelsey Oyler, whose 12 assists rank second in the nation in assists per game and fourth overall.

“Our outside backs get up so well that they really provide a lot of good chances for those forwards from kind of unique spaces from those wide areas,” Watkins said. “Mostly, it’s great players.”

A few of her passes have found their way to Riley, a prolific scorer , but also to junior forward Marissa Garcia, Riley’s running mate and another target up top.

Garcia is sixth in the nation and first in the conference with a 67% shot accuracy and eighth in program history with 17 career goals.

“She is just unbelievable,” Watkins said of Garcia. “She’s open to the possibilities of every play, and so she can make defenders just look silly, myself included when I play with them. She’s a remarkable talent.”

Watkins said his midfielders do a great job of providing balls to the outside backs and the forwards to cause problems for opposing backlines.

One of those midfielders is redshirt senior Maddie Kemp, whose hat trick helped set the program single-season goals (49), assists (41), and points (139) record during the 5-2 win at Pacific on Oct. 18.

With her three goals, she matched Riley with a team-best nine .

“It’s really entertaining to watch,” Garcia said. “Our energy that our bench gives us when we’re out on the field, and just all the energy that everyone gives each other, is so much fun to be a part of, so to be able to play in that environment, it makes everyone just want to do good.”

Over the past seven seasons under Watkins, the Bulldogs have won at a rate never seen since the program started in 1991.

His 75 wins are four away from the program record held by Shannon Stiles (1999-2008). The last time the Zags made the NCAA Tournament was in 2005 under Stiles. Last November the Zags had a chance at another appearance, but they were left out of the postseason during the selection show.

The team hopes this November won’t be remembered in the same light.

“The way things went last year, we just didn’t want things to go in that way,” Riley said. “We wanted to be able to control it how we are now. And (we) just didn’t want to feel that feeling that we felt after watching the selection show. So that’s something that’s really put a fire in us to just keep pushing and keep working.”

Current assistant coach Maddie Cooley – a former Bulldog who graduated in 2021 – told the team that she and her teammates would have loved the opportunity to be in a WCC title chase this late in October.

Junior defender Grace Courter joined the Zags in the 2021 season and played alongside Cooley. She said she dreamed of moments like this when she came to Spokane.

“Just to be in this position right now … it’s amazing,” Courter said. “And just to see how far this team has come, and I think it’s all based on our alumni and Cooley and everybody and on our energy, effort, commitment – our three pillars. What we’re built on over these past however many years, it’s awesome to see the position we’re in right now.”

While the offense has received much of the credit, the defense has allowed more than one goal twice during the past two months, with six shutouts in 15 games.

Courter leads the team with 1,293 minutes, all spent patrolling in front of GU’s starting goalkeeper, junior Lauren Towne.

“Our backline, I would say, is pretty underrated, and I like to call us that because the underdogs are pretty awesome, they’ll sneak up on you,” Courter said. “I think our grit and just being able and willing to get into hard tackles and organize and just be hungry for the ball and hunt down.”

Watkins said GU players have filled in admirably after the loss in net of Lyza Bosselmann, who was drafted and signed with the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Towne is the final line of defense. She has allowed 11 goals in 15 matches and multiple goals only three times.

“In her first year of experience, she’s quite good, too,” Watkins said.

Santa Clara’s No. 1 goalie, Marlee Nicolas, has allowed seven goals in 12 games.

The Zags hope to test Nicolas early and often .

“It’s literally like our basketball team playing against Santa Clara,” Watkins said. “We’re just trying to prove ourselves and get better every day. And our kids work hard, and we can score goals. So, at home, I would think we can score a few goals and give ourselves a good chance.”