Bruins have that unbeatable feeling
CARY, N.C. -- On an evening when the temperature dropped to near freezing and the breeze combined with the dampness of a day of rain to make it feel colder even than that, UCLA junior midfielder Sam Mewis refused to put on long sleeves under her jersey.
She grew up near the South Shore of Massachusetts, where the wind whips in off the Atlantic and winter lingers, and it was a point of pride on her club soccer team that nobody wore sleeves. Ever. They were tougher than that.
When Sunday's national championship match between UCLA and Florida State began at WakeMed Soccer Park, she was one of three players to forgo the extra layer, the other two hardy souls from Florida State. By halftime, even those two Seminoles gave up the charade and returned for the second half more warmly attired.
Mewis returned with the same short sleeves.
After the game, she sat on the news conference podium with her arms folded under her shoulders and shivered until Bruins coach Amanda Cromwell noticed and offered Mewis his jacket. The thin layer of material proved too little too late to stem the shivers until she could exit the stage.
"I'm freezing," Mewis offered through teeth that literally chattered. "I've never been so cold."
The smile on a face that stared out from beneath a national championship cap suggested she didn't really mind.
Mewis didn't beat the cold. But darned if she was going to let it beat her, either.
For the third time in as many games during the NCAA tournament, UCLA completed 90 minutes of soccer without an advantage on the scoreboard Sunday. For the first time ever in women's soccer, the Bruins finished the season's final day as national champions.
The trophy is going to Los Angeles after a 1-0 win not because UCLA proved once and for all it was demonstrably better than every other team when Megan Oyster's long run and pinpoint pass allowed Kodi Lavrusky to score the winner with 3:19 remaining in the first overtime period, but because it proved over the past two weeks that it was simply unbeatable.
Best is subjective. UCLA teams in the past arrived at the College Cup as the best but left disappointed. Unbeaten is inarguable.
Conference nemesis Stanford couldn't beat the Bruins in the Sweet 16. North Carolina couldn't beat them in a quarterfinal. Virginia couldn't beat them in a semifinal. Florida State couldn't beat them Sunday. Three overtimes and one penalty shootout will be forgotten. One title will not.
"If you look at who we had to go through to get to this point to win a national championship -- the past two national champions and the overall No. 1 seed in Virginia and a very good Florida State team, the ACC tournament champion. ... If you look back, it may be one of the best runs ever," Cromwell said. "It really might be. This team is phenomenal."
UCLA had the better of possession throughout most of Sunday's game, but its two best chances in regulation were turned away by the goal frame. The first smacked the crossbar when a Sarah Killion free kick in the 30th minute slid through a crowd in the middle of the 18-yard box and fell to the feet of Taylor Smith on the left side. Smith's shot had goalkeeper Kelsey Wys beat but didn't stay down. Smith again found hard luck in the 44th minute. After Wys parried away a shot from Caprice Dydasco, Smith gathered the rebound and hit the left post with a shot.
Another golden opportunity went unclaimed in the 65th minute when Lavrusky just missed getting a sliding foot on the ball in front of an open net after a cross took two deflections on its way through the box. The Bruins piled up a 15-5 edge in shots in regulation but couldn't turn the chances into anything more.
As well as the Bruins played on the night and in reaching the final, they had scored just two goals in roughly 300 minutes of soccer as the clock ticked toward the end of regulation and the Seminoles began to at least get closer to finding something of their own at the other end -- as they had 17 times this season after the 80th minute.
Then came the charge forward from Oyster late in the first overtime, her pass falling right at the feet of Lavrusky as the latter made a diagonal run. In more than 2,000 minutes of soccer this season, it was the first point of any kind for Oyster, a central defender who rarely finds herself as far forward as she was in this moment.
"It was probably the best pass in my life," Oyster said. "I've never done that before. I guess it was a good time."
What coach after coach, from North Carolina's Anson Dorrance to Virginia's Steve Swanson to Florida State's Mark Krikorian, noted during the NCAA tournament was how good UCLA was over the entire length of the field, from goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland to the frontrunners. The Bruins were not an offensive juggernaut, but team after team searched in vain for weak links to expose.
Part of the reason Florida State, like Virginia before it, struggled so mightily to get the possession its system is built around was the high pressure UCLA applied. Mewis, Lavrusky, Smith and others chased and pestered Seminoles in their own half, forcing them to either play long balls or complete four and five passes just to get out of their own half. But part of the reason those Bruins could put in that work high up the field was the comfort of knowing they had holding midfielders Killion and Jenna Richmond (or substitute Lauren Kaskie) behind them.
"I think it not only defensively allows me to press higher, but offensively it gives me so much more freedom because I trust them so much to be there in case I lose it or it gets by me," Mewis said. "So having such talented players behind me is something that is so valuable and it allows me so much more freedom offensively and defensively."
Every player had a role for the Bruins. Every player filled that role. If you want to look for an explanation for this UCLA team, why it again and again outlasted others, look at Killion.
She was the one taking the space Florida State star Dagny Brynjarsdottir wanted in the midfield. She was the one linking together passes from one line to another. She isn't the one who is going to get the goal-scoring opportunity most of the time. Her 12 assists notwithstanding, she isn't even the one whose pass immediately precedes the goal in many cases. It's instead her pass that sets up the pass that sets up the pass, just as Richmond's simple touch set Oyster on her long run in overtime.
They don't get the goal celebrations; they find their joy in other ways.
"I, 100 percent, take joy in watching our team build the ball from the back through the midfield, up to the forward and having a great goal -- just a great team goal," Killion said the day before the final. "Whether or not it goes through me doesn't matter. It's about this team. We've done great working through tight spaces and with time running down on the clock, we've handled almost every situation this season. We're prepared for all of it."
Never could one have brought more joy than watching Lavrusky take that pass and slip the ball past the keeper.
The Bruins began the season with a first-year coach and a lot of star power. A long road trip and a comprehensive loss against North Carolina in early September could have been too much too soon for that mix. Instead, both the time together and the lessons of a loss shaped an entire season.
"There's a little bit, historically, about UCLA teams being soft in the past, or they're not as hard as the East Coast teams," Cromwell said. "Being an East Coast coach and player for most of my life, I kind of had that in my mind, too. ... But when I got there, the way they approach the game and the professionalism they had and training -- I mean, this is the most consistent team I've ever seen just to come out to training every day and bring it. I didn't really have to worry about their mentality and what they brought to the table on a daily basis."
This was UCLA's ninth appearance in the College Cup but its first since a run of seven in a row ended in 2009. With the exception of Richmond, a fifth-year player, the Bruins on the field went through middle school, high school and the recruiting process watching UCLA make it to the College Cup every year. Yet none of them had been here until this season.
"You could say there is always a bit of doubt, but there is also that hunger to come out the next year even stronger and even better," Killion said of a string of disappointing tournament results before this season. "I think that's what we've done. We know the taste of defeat, and it's kind of what drove us this year to be like, 'We are not going home early. We want this so bad.' Not only for ourselves but for every single other player, coach, staff member, for the school."
A lot of teams talk that way, talk about doing whatever it takes to win. Few actually prove they can't be beaten in the postseason.
UCLA finally has a place among the small list of teams that were unbeatable when it mattered most.