As his team swarmed onto Avaya Stadium in San Jose on Sunday night to the tune of the final whistle, head coach Keidane McAlpine watched from the sidelines, grinning.
The players bounced on their toes, hands scrabbling to touch the wood of the program’s second NCAA trophy, pulling each other in for hugs. But McAlpine took his time, walking slowly to touch his first championship trophy.
In three seasons, McAlpine had turned a team that couldn’t make the playoffs into a squad that stormed into this year’s tournament and emerged champions. He drew in six transfers and turned them into a cohesive unit of leaders. And he created an environment of Trojan soccer that lives and breathes to do one thing — win.
“You plan a lot of things,” McAlpine said. “And you have to ride the ups and downs along the way. This group was a special group from day one, when we set foot on campus. And the three-year plan – it’s nice to see the end.”
The Trojans’ 3-1 victory over West Virginia on Sunday was a story with many parts — a defense that weathered a relentless Mountaineer attack, a pair of seniors who refused to allow a loss, a goalkeeper who carried the weight of a championship on her back. But mostly, it was the story of a team that decided to win the NCAA championship three years ago and, since then, hasn’t looked back.
The game itself was a grind from beginning to end. In the second minute, freshman Julia Bingham curled a ball to the top of the box and senior Savannah Levin headed a pass towards the mouth of the goal. Senior Morgan Andrews leaped into the air to flick the ball into the net and the Trojans took an early lead, confidences high as they jogged back to midfield.
But from there, West Virginia attacked intensely, outpacing the Trojans on the attack and levelling 21 total shots. The pressure forced senior goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme to make eight saves, coming off her line to snatch passes out of the air and diving to block point-blank shots.
In comparison, the Trojans only shot eight times. But they took their shots and their opportunities where it mattered the most.
“We were unified,” McAlpine said. “We’ve talked about our team defending [since] day one. We defend so we can attack. We’ve always been able to create chances and we’ve been very opportunistic all year. Today was no different.”
After West Virginia retained the ball and the momentum for most of the first half, the Trojans began to balance the rhythm by building plays out of the backline. But in the 66th minute, a steal and a quick finish evened the score.
It was redshirt senior Katie Johnson who gave up the steal. She blamed herself for the goal, for the even score, and decided it was her job to make sure the Trojans only came home as champions.
“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Johnson said. “I decided, ‘Okay, I need to get this back.’ Honestly, I just want to win, that’s all I care about. I’m just glad that we could win, that we could get the national championship, because I really believed that we could do it today.”
Less than ten minutes later, sophomore Leah Pruitt powered through two defenders and muscled her way into open position just outside the box. Johnson sprinted to a wide open backside, one hand pointed at the goal. When the pass came, she only needed a step and a glance before slotting the ball into the net.
The goal gave the Trojans every ounce of momentum they needed. West Virginia kept attacking, but Prudhomme and her defense stepped up at every moment, keeping the Mountaineers wide and disrupting the ball when it entered the box.
But that wasn’t enough for Johnson. And when senior Nicole Molen slotted a pass through the backline with only three minutes left on the clock, Johnson chased the ball down, shrugged off a defender and slammed a shot into the net.
The rest of the game was a celebration for the Trojans, as the bench held each other back, waiting for the final whistle, for their first seconds as national champions.
It’s not the program’s first NCAA trophy, and if McAlpine keeps up this pace, it won’t be its last. But this team has always been focused on more than just putting the ball in the back of the net, and that moment meant more than just a new piece of hardware for Heritage Hall.
Three years ago, this team lost eight of 20 regular season games. They weren’t even considered for the playoffs, not to mention a top-ten NCAA ranking. They didn’t have a coach or much of a plan, and the players doubted themselves, their team and their futures.
“We were very down on ourselves,” said senior Mandy Freeman, thePac-12 Defender of the Year. “We were in a bad place, coming from the coaching staff, individual players, just the type of environment that we were playing in.”
McAlpine came into the program with a three-year plan that was simple. First, they would have a winning season. Then they would make it to the tourney. Then they would win the whole thing. Most importantly, he wanted the team to have a good time while doing it.
Three years later, that transformation is complete.
“To have Keidane come in and completely change the culture, that was one of the biggest things,” Freeman said. “We focused on being better teammates, being competitive and bringing a good atmosphere to practice, on and off the field. I think that was our major selling point of getting this far into the season.”
Each player, in their own time, has experienced their own form of transition. Three years ago, Prudhomme was ready to quit soccer. She felt uncomfortable, uncertain of herself in her role at Oregon State. Over two years that had manifested into hating the game itself.
But she heard about a new coach at USC who had a plan to start winning. And Prudhomme believed in him, believed that by her senior year she could be a national champion. So she made the transfer, sat out a year, and bought into the program.
Two years, later she is Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year, holding the school record for shutouts along with her rank as a national champion.
On Sunday night, Prudhomme held her replica trophy in both hands, placing it neatly on the table in front of her as she sat down for the post-game press conference.
“In case you guys were wondering what this looks like,” she said, readjusting the trophy so that the overhead lights glinted off its surface.
When asked how it felt to be a national champion, she answered with a grin.
“I’m just so happy right now,” she said breathlessly, tugging at her NCAA champion hat with one hand.
Prudhomme wasn’t the only one who was stuck in a rut three years ago. Five other players transferred from schools that just didn’t fit. Freeman and her fellow seniors stuck it out, even when they didn’t know if they could trust McAlpine and his lofty goals. And Johnson lost all of last year to an ACL tear that she played through during her junior season, spending this season proving that she was still every bit as important to the team.
They’ve come a long way — from the team that couldn’t break .500 three years ago, that earlier this season described themselves as a group of “misfits” just looking for a chance.
But as the Trojans left Avaya Stadium in baggy champion t-shirts, clutching their replica trophies, one thing was beyond clear.
Three years have made all the difference.