How Izzy D’Aquila and Santa Clara Conquered the NCAA Tournament

D’Aquila led the Broncos to the program’s first national championship in 20 years.

By Alex Holmes

Santa Clara University is tucked away on the western outskirts of San Jose, just south of San Francisco. It is one of the top schools on the west coast and its three national championships make it the pride of the West Coast Conference. But make no mistake: this is a women’s soccer school.

The school owns 11 College Cup appearances and two national championships in women’s soccer. The university also boasts legendary soccer alumni in Brandi Chastain, Aly Wagner, Leslie Osborne, and Julie Ertz, who are former and current stars of the USWNT. The 2020 edition of the Broncos officially stamped its name as one of the program’s best, thanks in large part to sophomore forward Izzy D’Aquila.

The Broncos celebrate their win. (Source: Santa Clara Athletics)

Just under one month ago, the Santa Clara Broncos won the 2020 NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Tournament. The Broncos’ gritty run to the top of college soccer featured wins against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, including a penalty kick-thriller in the championship match. The Broncos arrived at the College Cup due to stellar play from Izzy D’Aquila, and it only made sense that they returned home with the program’s second national title off the foot of D’Aquila with her penalty kick in the final.

After a successful freshman campaign in 2019—where she scored a team-leading 15 goals and was named the WCC Freshman of the Year—D’Aquila burst onto the national scene in this year’s long-awaited NCAA Tournament.

She scored in the Broncos’ first two matches, recorded an assist in the Elite Eight, notched another goal and an assist in the national semifinals, then put away the game-clinching penalty kick that gave the Broncos their first national championship in 20 years.

The Broncos reached the pinnacle of their sport after a long wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Santa Clara to move its soccer season from the fall to the spring. Players were sent home in August and were not even sure if they would have a season to play in when they came back to campus in the spring.

Izzy D’Aquila celebrates in the semifinal match. (Source: Santa Clara Athletics)

D’Aquila, a SoCal native, spent her time away from the team in Utah, where she stuck to a strict training regimen and practiced with boys’ club teams in the area to stay sharp. Her preparation paid off in early 2021, when she and the team received news that the spring season was on.

The spring slate saw five matches postponed or cancelled, leaving head coach Jerry Smith’s side with only seven games to tune-up for the NCAA Tournament, which began in late April.

The lack of games wasn’t an issue for D’Aquila and the Broncos, as she attributed the team’s success in the tournament to the trust that developed in their preparation leading up to the event.

“I think that was one of our biggest things in the tournament—just trusting each other, that we were prepared well, we had trained as much as we could, and we were going to take what the game gave us and run as far as possible as we could in the tournament,” D’Aquila said in an interview with She Plays.

Part of their preparation included their experience with the strict bubble that the team had to stay in throughout the spring, which made the transition to a bubble environment in North Carolina for the tournament a little smoother. Through this time in the bubble, D’Aquila noted how spending so much time together cultivated team chemistry.

“That helped us build relationships that I don’t think I would ever had with these girls without this year,” D’Aquila said, “the times that we did spend together were a lot of fun.”

D’Aquila reminisced about one of her favorite moments with the team in the bubble, which occurred right before the Broncos’ semifinal game against perennial powerhouse North Carolina, the No. 2 seed in the tournament.

Sophomore forward Izzy D’Aquila earned First Team All-West Region and First Team All-WCC honors this spring. (Source: Santa Clara Athletics)

“One of our girls set up a big video for us of all of our friends and families from back home just wishing us good luck and it brought tears to everyone,” she said.

The team’s support from fans was noticeable during the College Cup, as the Bronco-faithful had made the cross-country trip to support their women’s soccer team.

“It gave us so much more to play for,” D’Aquila said, “we knew that we weren’t just playing for ourselves anymore, we were playing to make our school proud.”

In the College Cup, D’Aquila played like it was her personal mission to make her university and alumni proud. She led the charge in the upset bid against North Carolina, terrorizing the Tar Heel backline as she capitalized on two defensive miscues to notch a goal and an assist.

It’s no question that school pride reached its peak the moment D’Aquila scored the game-winning penalty kick to win the national championship against top-seeded Florida State. During the shootout, Santa Clara knocked home their first three kicks from the mark while Florida State missed their first two, setting up the opportunity for D’Aquila to take the game-winning kick—every young soccer players’ dream.

“I was just telling myself ‘You got this. Stay calm. Don’t overhit it.’”

D’Aquila struck the ball into the bottom right side of the net to secure the program’s first national championship since 2001.

Izzy D’Aquila (#9) and her teammates celebrate winning the national championship after D’Aquila scored the game-winning penalty kick. (Source: Santa Clara Athletics)

As a young player D’Aquila looked up to Santa Clara legends like Chastain and Wagner, who were present in the stands at the College Cup, and now she is relishing the opportunity to be a role model for the next generation of soccer players.

“To think that I am 19 and there are little girls who look up to me is incredible,” D’Aquila said, “it’s not just for soccer, it’s not just for myself, that it is inspiring other little boys and girls and to follow their dreams.”

One day, she hopes to play professionally in the U.S. or Europe. For now, D’Aquila wants to keep building relationships with her teammates and playing for all the people rooting for her back home.

“I am playing soccer, I am doing what I love, but it is much bigger than that and I am just honored that I am able to represent Santa Clara, and myself, and all the alums.”

Izzy D’Aquila has already woven her name into the tapestry of Santa Clara soccer royalty. Soccer fans should look forward to seeing D’Aquila in the pro ranks—she will certainly be a force to reckon with.

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