SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Missing two injured stars for the second season in a row and staring down the reality of a sport whose own success paradoxically threatens to push some of its premier programs to the brink of championship extinction, Santa Clara remains more intent on thriving than simply surviving in women's college soccer.
It's a big-picture mind-set that plays out on the smallest scale every time the ball finds its way to the feet of junior forward Kiki Bosio, one of 22 non-seniors named to the Hermann Trophy watch list this season. Bosio's athleticism is impossible to miss -- along with Notre Dame's Michelle Weissenhofer, she's one of the country's best flip-throw practitioners -- but it's her polish on the ball that sets her apart.
"I've always felt I fit into Brazilian-style soccer better," Bosio admitted with the grin of someone who has suffered through a lifetime of passing drills. "Since I was young, I've always just wanted to have the ball at my foot."
Neither the program nor its star is easily dispossessed once in control.
Jerry Smith arrived at Santa Clara in 1987, seven years after the school first fielded a women's soccer team and five years after a crowd of 1,000 watched North Carolina beat Central Florida in the sport's first NCAA-sanctioned championship game. The season before Smith took charge, the total attendance for the entire NCAA tournament was 6,524, a figure topped by every national championship game since 1995, including the 2001 title game that saw Smith's Broncos beat North Carolina 1-0.
Still a couple of years shy of 50, Smith is one of the college game's founding fathers. But as the game has grown, in part because of the success of coaches like Smith and the late Clive Charles at fellow West Coast Conference power Portland, bigger schools with bigger athletic budgets have turned their attention to women's soccer. By the time USC, last year's national champion, began playing women's soccer in 1993, Smith already had 75 wins and four NCAA tournament appearances at Santa Clara. And even that came two years before Florida State, last year's national runner-up, started its women's team.
Through it all, Santa Clara, a private school with an enrollment of around 8,000 students, has remained among the elite in a manner traditional powers in other women's sports -- like Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech in women's basketball -- have struggled to match. Until back-to-back first-round losses in the NCAA tournament the last two seasons, Smith's team reached at least the quarterfinals for 11 consecutive seasons, a run that included the 2001 title among seven College Cup appearances.
"It does become harder," Smith said of maintaining success. "It's always been harder for schools like ours that don't have the budgets of the bigger schools to compete. It's always harder, and it becomes harder every year, as more and more money goes into our sport and the bigger schools with bigger departments and bigger budgets are working harder and harder. Those teams want to be in the NCAA playoffs and they want to be in the Final Four. And Portland and Santa Clara, we're the ones that have been there, and so they're obviously doing everything they can to displace us."
Some of the obstacles may be unconquerable. Competing for California's top recruits, a private school like Santa Clara, where tuition and room and board costs rise above $40,000 annually, cannot offer the same degree of financial assistance in equivalency sports like soccer as a public school like UCLA, with its far lower in-state tuition. But through long-running, successful summer camps, Smith's program can make up some of the budget deficits it might otherwise run against the likes of a Pac-10 athletic department. And with renovations to Buck Shaw Stadium that coincided with the return of the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer, Santa Clara can offer the kind of professional-quality facilities it hopes will bring the College Cup back to the area (since 2003, the College Cup has rotated between College Station, Texas and Cary, N.C.).
All of which may really just give Santa Clara the packaging it needs to sell itself.
"These young players want to go to a place where they have a proven coaching staff at helping players reach their potential," Smith said. "We have that. There is little doubt, if any doubt, that we can help you do that. And they want to go to a place where they can have success against the top teams in the country. And once again, that's an easy argument for us to make. We have plenty of evidence that we can do that."
And players notice. Like traditional English power Arsenal, as it struggles to maintain Arsene Wenger's pure football in the face of more financially dominant clubs like Chelsea and perhaps now Manchester City, Santa Clara (as is the case with league rival Portland under coach Garrett Smith) plays an aesthetically pleasing style that emphasizes skill and precision more than athletic superiority or victory by attrition. In Bosio's case, that meant letting the Brazilian flair in the quiet Californian's game win out.
"What I love about Jerry is he encourages me to dribble more, which is my favorite thing to do," Bosio said. "I mean, if I could dribble all day, I would. And he kind of encourages that, so for me, to have a coach that's wanting me to succeed in something that I'm fairly good at, it's just refreshing. It's kind of a confidence boost."
In the short term, avoiding a third consecutive early exit from the postseason will have a lot to with Bosio, but not solely because of her ability to dazzle off the dribble and put the ball in the back of the net. Along with classmate Katherine Reynolds and sophomore Maxine Goynes, she finds herself in unfamiliar territory as one of the captains on a team again entering a season short-handed after losing fifth-year senior Jordan Angeli and fourth-year junior Amanda Poach to season-ending injuries for the second year in a row.
Poach, whom Smith calls one of the most talented players the program has ever had, missed last season after tearing her ACL, and saw her chances of a comeback this season derailed when she tore a muclse in her quadriceps. Angeli's absence on the field may prove to be almost as noticeable as Poach's, but it also creates an equally compelling void off the field, where both Smith and Bosio described her as the unquestioned leader-in-waiting following captain Brittany Klein's departure after last season.
Without a single senior field player (although there is a senior presence in the starting lineup with keeper Meagan McCray), Smith's team entered the season without much in the way of proven leadership. And for all the success he's had, a leadership vacuum remains the source of one of Smith's biggest disappointments and biggest lessons.
"In '99 we were the best team in the country," Smith said. "We were undefeated, untied, scored over 80 goals in the regular season and allowed four, beat Carolina for the first time in our history, beat our conference rival Portland 8-0, beat UCLA in the playoffs 7-0. I mean, we just had a rock-star team. We ended up losing in the semifinal that year to Notre Dame, as it turns out, but I think there was little doubt about who the best team in the country was that year. We didn't win, but we were probably the best team. That was '99; in 2001, we won the national championship and beat North Carolina in the final. Sandwiched between those years was our 2000 season. Now those are two phenomenal seasons -- 1999 and 2001. [In] 2000, we had one of the worst seasons I've ever experienced as head coach of Santa Clara. Looking back on that, what happened -- the thing was leadership. We didn't have the leadership in 2000 that we needed to have."
His answer was to start a yearly offseason leadership program for one or two players from each class. Once a week from January through June, the group meets with him and debates questions, role-plays different situations and prepares to take leadership roles, whether as designated captains or merely upperclassmen. Bosio went through it after last season and now finds herself testing the practical applications of the experience.
"It's definitely a lot more work, a lot more stress," Bosio said. "It's a lot more stressful in the fact that you just have to take a bigger role. You're worrying about things other than just yourself and your ability to play well.
"I'm definitely more of a lead-by-example person. For the most part, since now there are only three of us captains, and all three of us are new at this and have never experienced anything like this before, all three of us are forced to speak up and forced to voice our opinions and use our voices more, because all three of us are very silent. So it's been a challenge, but I think we're doing really well at it."
Of course, beyond finding leadership, the Broncos are going to have to find goals this season in order to play deep into November. Already they've shown an ability to go toe-to-toe with other elite teams, beating West Virginia and losing close games against Notre Dame and USC. But in scoring just three goals in those contests, they've also offered a reminder of the offensive scarcity that plagued them in 2007. Until recently, scoring 40 goals was almost an annual given for the Broncos. But last year's injury-depleted team managed just 33 goals in 21 games, including 13 in a 5-6-2 stretch to close the year.
With showdowns remaining against North Carolina, UCLA, California, Stanford and Portland, it won't be an easy road. But for Smith, who has certainly had opportunities to move on to other jobs with more natural advantages, it's all part of the attraction.
"One of the things that I love about college athletics is you're building a new team every year -- about 25 percent or more of your team is new every year," Smith said. "So building a new team and the camaraderie and teamwork and figuring things out is really interesting. I love that.
"And then more macro or global is can you do it consistently? What legacy will you leave behind? Those are things I absolutely think about. I try to do things in a different way and think outside the box and leave Santa Clara University, leave women's college soccer, leave soccer in better shape than when I started. And I think we've been able to do that."
As Bosio adapts to her new role as a captain, she exemplifies the year-to-year challenge of the former. That she is in the position at all is evidence that the latter also remains true.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.