The fall quarter at UCLA doesn’t begin until mid-September but that doesn’t mean there’s no studying going on. For weeks, players on the women’s soccer team have been walking around campus toting huge white binders with the letters UCLA in blue-and-gold script on the front.
What’s inside is required reading.
And though the idea for the book came from Margueritte Aozasa, the second-year coach has done more to change the culture at UCLA than just issuing homework assignments.
“Our new coaching staff, they have really transformed this program,” senior forward Reilyn Turner said. “They implemented a lot of team-bonding things that we didn’t do previously. They really value personal relationships. That has brought us to where we are now.”
Where the unbeaten Bruins (3-0) are now is atop the national rankings a season after winning the second NCAA title in school history, making Aozasa the first rookie coach and first woman of color to win a championship in women’s soccer.
Junior defender Quincy McMahon who, like many on the roster, was recruited by the previous coach, Amanda Cromwell, said Aozasa worked hard from the start to earn her players’ trust.
“When Amanda left, for sure there was a little bit of anxiety,” McMahon said. “But Margueritte right away came in and just made it a very relationship-based thing. She had a meeting with every single one of us the day she got here. That just made it super easy to trust her because she invited us to create the team that she wanted.
“[To] build a lot of trust at the very start, it’s so easy to transition into that and get used to her coaching style or understand what she was saying to us.”
That transition to Aozasa’s disciplined and defensive-oriented approach is far from complete, however, which brings us back to the big white binders. The coach believes soccer is more like jazz than classical music in that it requires improvisation off a theme rather than slavish devotion to a score. So the binders are less a playbook and more an outline of the coach’s tactical and strategic philosophies.
When the ball gets kicked, it’s up to the players to apply them. And that’s where the trust and personal relationships comes in.
“As a staff, we look at our role as getting the most out of each and every player,” said Aozasa, whose team has outscored opponents 8-1 in its three wins this season. “In order to do that, you have to know them, you have to understand them, you have to relate to them, and they have to relate to you and trust you. You can’t demand a ton of your players unless they know that you care about them.”
That approach paid off during an NCAA title game with North Carolina that Aozasa’s players refused to lose, with Turner scoring with 16 seconds left in regulation to send the game to extra time. Maricarmen Reyes then won it in the second extra period, the Bruins’ 22nd victory of the season, matching the school record.
This season, UCLA’s final one in the Pac-12, Aozasa wants to build on that success by introducing new concepts to her team’s style of play. Whether that works will also be determined by trust since the coaches are relying on the holdovers from the championship roster to get the team’s six freshmen and two transfers up to speed.
“We’ve put a lot of responsibility on the veterans to help teach the younger players, the ones that haven’t seen it before, which has been a huge advantage because last year it felt like we were teaching every single person something brand-new. Now we’re kind of refining something,” she said.
“What I hope is we appear to be a more mature and experienced team. We can be more adaptable because now we have a foundation that’s a little more stable, which allows us to make more modifications in a fluid manner. Last year we didn’t have that foundation behind us.”
Aozasa, 33, came to UCLA from Stanford, where she was an assistant on two national championship teams. So she’s been to the mountaintop before and knows how steep the fall can be: In 2019, the Cardinal won the NCAA title only to finish fourth in the Pac-12 a season later.
“It is always super hard to win championships. I don’t know why people think it’s different for us,” she said. “That you can be the best in that country doesn’t mean you’re going to win it. It’s a fresh year. At the end of the day, you have to win your last six games. That doesn’t matter if you’ve won it before, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never won.
“People always talk. ‘Oh, well, you have a target on your back.’ We always have a target on our back.”
And that may prove to be the push the team needs to write the final chapter to the book they’ve been carrying around campus this summer.
“We can’t use our new coaching staff as motivation anymore because they’ve been here for a year,” said Turner, who, alongside teammate Lilly Reale, was named to the preseason watch list for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s version of the Heisman. “We’ve gotten close with them. We’ve had a lot of experiences. So we have to find a new why.
“We have a lot of expectations for ourselves. And I think other people have expectations for us. We just need to focus on what we need to do.”
Best of the rest
As the defending national champion in women’s soccer, UCLA entered the new season ranked No. 1 in the country. But the Bruins aren’t the only team in Southern California that has title aspirations. At least three other schools also have reasons to believe this will be a big year:
USC: The Trojans (2-1), ranked 24th in last week’s United Soccer Coaches’ poll, beat No. 4 Duke in Durham, N.C., before ending their first road trip of the season with a 4-0 loss to No. 3 North Carolina. Defender Kayla Duran and forward Simone Jackson are on the Hermann Trophy watch list.
UC Irvine: The Anteaters made it at least as far as the second round in each of the last two NCAA tournaments but are just 2-2 this year, thanks to a tough early-season schedule that saw them lose to both No. 11 Stanford and No. 1 UCLA.
Pepperdine: The unbeaten Waves (1-0-3), who reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament in 2021, are led by preseason all-conference picks Tori Waldeck and Tatum Wynalda.