The Trojans’ women’s soccer team was coming off an 11-5-5 season and a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10.
Montgomery grad Stacey Strong had had another stellar season, starting every game in her sophomore campaign to earn All-Pac 10 second-team honors.
Then USC’s coach, Jim Millinder, was let go. Enter Ali Khosroshahin, a coach with an entirely different philosophy and an entirely different demeanor.
The transition, and the uncertainty it wrought, was not easy.
“It was awful. It was terrible,” said Strong, 31, now an assistant with Montgomery’s girls’ soccer team.
And as rough as it was to move on from the coach who had recruited her and was essentially the reason she went to USC to someone she didn’t know, something about it worked.
The new 5:30 a.m. workouts worked. The demanding nature of every training session worked.
“(Khosroshahin) came in and wanted us to be more disciplined,” she said. “It worked. We had a bunch of girls who could work under that system. We had a bunch of tough girls.”
It was 10 years ago Saturday that Strong and those tough girls raised the iconic NCAA national champions trophy on the field at the Aggie Soccer Complex in College Station, Texas. The Trojans beat UCLA — for the first time in nine years — in the semifinals round and then dispatched Florida State 2-0 to win the national championship.
“At first it was just relief,” she said. “When the whistle blew, it was honestly, ‘We did it.’”
Excitement? That would come later. After the path Strong and the Trojans took to the final, acknowledging that relief was the first-blush emotion makes a certain amount of sense.
Despite running up a 20-3-2 record, the journey for the Trojans that year was not easy. They didn’t win the Pac-10 title; they lost to crosstown rivals UCLA — again. They didn’t get a No. 1 regional seed going into the tournament and they played their first two games on the road.
And all the while, it was a season of firsts under the first-year coach.
For Strong, a player who had earned a starting midfielder role as a freshman under Millinder, she knew that a new coach meant, essentially, a new tryout. Some coaches can walk in the door looking to shake things up, to take apart the structure and lineup built by their predecessor. For a player, the transition can be unnerving.
“I trusted my abilities and my strength as a player. I just knew that whatever it took, it would eventually come full circle,” she said. “I’m very competitive. I knew that as long as I outperformed the people that were going to play my position, that should be all that matters.”
Strong proved her ability and she also showed her versatility. After a rash of injuries to the Trojans’ back line, Khosroshahin needed someone to play the right defender position. Strong, who had done some of those defending duties on other teams, raised her hand.
She had the skills to do it and the Trojan formation allowed outside backs to move into the attack when the moment called for it.
“In the system we played, I had the opportunity to get up into the attack,” she said.
So Strong was playing a relatively new position and for a new coach. But one thing hadn’t changed — Strong said it was clear from the start that the Trojans had the tools to make a run.