Danielle Slaton had made up her mind. After passing on Stanford,
her parents' top choice, and alternately embracing and resisting
the allure of perennial soccer power North Carolina, Slaton, a
quicksilver defender, finally committed to Santa Clara, a
college only 15 minutes from her home in San Jose. Now all she
had to do was wait for her Presentation High and Central Valley
Mercury Club teammate Aly Wagner, a highly touted midfielder, to
make her decision. "When Aly went on that second visit to South
Bend, I was sweating it," says Slaton. "I couldn't imagine not
playing with her."
Wagner too passed on her parents' dream school--Notre Dame--and
declined the glories that were virtually assured at North
Carolina. She realized that, like Slaton, she didn't want to go
to a school that already owned umpteen titles. "I wanted to beat
North Carolina for the title," says Wagner.
She finally fulfilled that desire on Sunday, when she scored the
lone goal as the Broncos beat the defending champion Tar Heels
1-0 to win their first NCAA women's soccer title. Besides
putting an end to Santa Clara's long stint as a College Cup
also-ran--in seven previous trips to the Final Four in 12 years
the Broncos had never reached the championship game--the victory
gave the San Jose area its third major soccer title of the year.
Earlier the Earthquakes had won the MLS championship, and the
CyberRays the inaugural WUSA title.
"When Danielle and Aly decided to come here, I knew they would
play in the final," says Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith.
"Honestly, I think they're surprised they don't have more
championships to their credit."
After all, the two had been a winning combo for years before
becoming college teammates. As teenagers they led San Jose's
Presentation High to two Central Coast Section titles, and along
with future Santa Clara teammate Anna Kraus they led the
Mercury, co-coached by Aly's mom, Vicki, to an unprecedented
three straight national club championships. While at Santa Clara
both Slaton, a senior, and Wagner, a redshirt junior, have spent
time with the national team (the former was the only collegian
on the silver-medalist 2000 Olympic team, and the latter was an
alternate), and both are arguably the best college players at
Slaton, a former ballerina who as an eight-year-old traveled to
the Soviet Union to perform, is nimble and swift, like her
father, Frank, who says he was "the slow one" on the San Jose
State sprint teams of the 1960s that included Tommie Smith, Lee
Evans and John Carlos. Along with Kraus, also a senior, Slaton
anchored a freshman-heavy Broncos defense that shut out 13
opponents and gave up only three goals in the run of play to
help Santa Clara go 17-2 during the regular season. On Sunday
the Broncos not only blanked the Tar Heels but also limited them
to seven shots on goal, 13 below their season average.
On top of that, Slaton is sixth on Santa Clara's career assists
list, with 34. According to Smith, though, what really
distinguishes Slaton, who's likely to go No. 1 in the WUSA draft
in February, is her leadership. Before her sophomore year she
was voted co-captain of a team that was ranked No. 1 in the
country and had two senior All-Americas. She has been a captain
ever since. "Danielle is a take-charge person," the Broncos
coach says, "but she never crosses the line to where it's too
much, and that's an art."
Wagner's art lies in her deft passes. She can spin and place the
ball just about anywhere she wants, which is why she led the
nation in assists this year, with 20. "What's difficult about
her is, you give her a little space, and she'll shoot; give her
pressure, and she'll slip the ball past you," says Florida coach
Becky Burleigh, whose Gators lost 3-2 to Santa Clara in overtime
in the semifinals last Friday night, thanks in large part to two
perfectly placed assists by Wagner.
"Aly is the most skillful player in college soccer, and she's a
little like Brandi in that she's not afraid to say she wants to
be the best player on the best team," says Smith, referring to
his wife, national-team star Brandi Chastain.
Next year Wagner will probably have all to herself the role of
best player on the defending national champion team. It's
something she doesn't relish. "Danielle and I have played
together so long, I never considered playing without her," she
says. "I can't imagine what that will be like."
COLOR PHOTO: HUY NGUYEN Slaton, the Broncos' defensive anchor, will likely go No. 1 in the next WUSA draft.