Frank Marino believes Cal Lutheran is on target for something big in women's soccer, and if it doesn't happen this year, well, check back next fall. And the years to follow.
The Regals, from Thousand Oaks, head into this weekend's start to the NCAA Division III tournament with a 20-1-1 record, No. 10 national ranking, and burgeoning confidence following back-to-back titles in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Cal Lu was perfect in SCIAC play this season, maneuvered past one little bump -- winning on penalty kicks over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the conference tournament final -- and are set to take its first step toward a potential national title Saturday night at 7:30 at the university's new William Rolland Stadium against UC Santa Cruz, a side the Regals have beaten twice this year, both by 2-0 scorelines.
“I think we're pretty good ...,” said Marino, who in three seasons has posted a 51-10-4 record, rising from 13 wins to 18 and then 20 -- the last two setting program records -- with back-to-back NCAA appearances. “I really think we're in the top 10 of the country. I feel if the ball bounces the right way, we can compete for a national championship, I really do. We have enough depth on our roster to play with anybody.”
But first things first. Cal Lutheran has never won an NCAA tournament game. If they do so against UC Santa Cruz (7-6-2), on Sunday, they'll play the winner of the other first-rounder at Rolland, the 5 p.m. game between Puget Sound (14-3-2) and Concordia-Morehead (12-3-5).
The Regals are led by two-time SCIAC Player of the Year Sinead Vaughn (Simi Valley/Royal HS), a third-team All-America midfielder last season who came to Cal Lu after stints at Cal State Northridge and Moorpark College. Other team leaders are senior central midfielder Kaitlin Walters (Moorpark/Moorpark HS and Moorpark College) and junior center back Jess Dingman (Moorpark/Moorpark HS).
The addition of freshman striker Taylor Will, from Santa Maria, is taking the Regals to the next level. She's got Division I skills but fell in love with the Cal Lu campus, and she has scored 19 goals in 19 games.
“She's athletic, but she's also got a very good sense of how to play football,” said Marino, who also coaches Westlake High School's girls team and in Camarillo's champion Eagles Soccer Club, where Will played. “She can score in multiple ways. She's really good in the box in terms of finishing and her versatility makes her special.”
Cal Lutheran's only loss this season came against defending champion Hardin-Simmons, which is 19-1 and ranked seventh in the Division III poll, but it has survived a few scares in the past couple of weeks. The Regals needed overtime to beat Pomona-Pitzer and Occidental in their last two conference matches and couldn't score in OT before prevailing in the SCIAC final.
That might be a good thing.
“When you look at it, we found a way to win every game,” Marino said. “I think that's important. It says a lot about our team. We didn't have as many struggles last year, but our youth showed in postseason last year. I think a little of that experience carried over to this year, and we've found a way to win. The NCAA tournament is all about finding a way to win.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps had no right winning the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference men's tournament title, even after battling regular-season champ Redlands to a 1-1 drive deep into overtime. But goalkeeper Ricky Doar stepped up to stop Cody Carlson's penalty kick with less than three minutes before the tiebreaker, then led the Stags to a 4-2 triumph on PKs to snare a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
Local conference Players of the Week:
Pacific 12 Conference (NCAA Division I)
Men: UCLA's Shawn Singh
Big West Conference (NCAA Division I)
Men: Offensive -- UC Santa Barbara's Luis Silva (Los Angeles/Salesian HS); Defensive -- UC Irvine's Andrew Fontein
Golden State Athletic Conference (NAIA)
Men: Offensive -- Concordia's Christian Ramirez (Garden Grove/La Quinta HS and UC Santa Barbara); Defensive -- Biola's Aaron Fenlason
Women: Offensive -- Azusa Pacific's Natalie Sun; Defensive -- Point Loma Nazarene's Tiffany Kracy (Whittier/La Habra HS)
RANKINGS: UCLA's women have risen to No. 2 in the National Soccer Coaches' Association of America's Division I poll, the highest spot the Bruins have seen this season. The gap to No. 1 is considerable. UCLA lost just once this year, to top-ranked Stanford, and it wasn't close. The Bruins open NCAA tournament play Saturday night at home against New Mexico.
Here's a list of local teams in the NSCAA rankings:
11. UC Irvine
15. UC Santa Barbara
Nos. 1-3: New Mexico, Creighton and North Carolina
Receiving votes: UC Irvine and Long Beach State
Nos. 1 and 3: Stanford, Duke
17. Cal State L.A.
Nos. 1-3: Simon Fraser (B.C.), Franklin Pierce (N.H.) and Fort Lewis (Colo.)
Receiving votes: Cal State L.A.
Nos. 1-3: Grand Valley State (Mich.), California (Pa.) and Bridgeport (Conn.)
Nos. 1-3: Messiah (Pa.), St. Lawrence (N.Y.) and Christopher Newport (Va.)
10. Cal Lutheran
Nos. 1-3: Messiah (Pa.), William Smith (N.Y.) and Trinity (Texas)
15. Azusa Pacific
Receiving votes: La Sierra
Nos. 1-3: Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), Baker (Kan.) and Hastings (Neb.)
5. Azusa Pacific
Receiving votes: Biola and Vanguard
Nos. 1-3: Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), Lee (Tenn.) and Mobile (Ala.)
OUR RANKINGS: The best in So Cal? Here are our rankings of local teams:
Division I: 1. UCLA; 2. UC Irvine; 3. UC Santa Barbara; 4. UC Riverside; 5. Loyola Marymount
Lower divisions: 1. Cal State L.A. (D2); 2. Concordia (NAIA); 3. Cal State Dominguez Hills (D2); 4. Cal Baptist (D2); 5. Azusa Pacific (NAIA)
Division I: 1. UCLA; 2. Pepperdine; 3. Long Beach State; 4. UC Irvine; 5. Cal State Northridge
Lower divisions: 1. Azusa Pacific (NAIA); 2. Cal State L.A. (D2); 3. Cal Baptist (D2); 4. Cal State San Bernardino (D2); 5. Cal Lutheran (D3)