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ROAD TO TITLE

Looking back at USC’s results in the 2007 NCAA Division I women’s soccer tournament:

First round

USC 2, Creighton

Second round

USC 2, Missouri 1 (2 OT)

Round of 16

USC 1, Florida 0

Region final

USC 1, West Virginia 0

College Cup semifinal round

USC 2, UCLA 1

College Cup championship

USC 2, Florida State 0

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.

ROAD TO TITLE

Looking back at USC’s results in the 2007 NCAA Division I women’s soccer tournament:

First round

USC 2, Creighton

Second round

USC 2, Missouri 1 (2 OT)

Round of 16

USC 1, Florida 0

Region final

USC 1, West Virginia 0

College Cup semifinal round

USC 2, UCLA 1

College Cup championship

USC 2, Florida State 0

“Every single year our goal was to win. (At USC) success is based on national championships,” she said. “That is your goal every single year.”

But they also had an excuse to lose. They had lost their last regular-season game 2-1 to Washington State. Their draw in the tournament would likely pit them against archrival UCLA, a team they could not seem to find a way to beat. And this: No team had ever won the title under a first-year coach.

The Trojans dispatched Creighton 3-0 in the first round in bitterly cold conditions. Up next was a tough Missouri squad. It took two overtime periods for the Trojans to win 2-1 and to send the Tigers packing.

“They were a good team. That was the hardest team we played in the tournament,” she said. “When we scored that goal in overtime, it was, ‘Let’s get on the bus and go and let’s not do that again.’”

The Trojans then headed home to host No. 3 seed Florida. A 1-0 win sent the Gators home and put the Trojans in a quarterfinal matchup with West Virginia that they took 1-0.

And then it was UCLA on Dec. 7. The Trojans had lost to the Pac-10 champion Bruins 2-0 on Oct. 26. And they had lost every game between the two schools for nine years. That’s a pretty big monkey on a program’s back.

And when the first half closed with the Trojans down 1-0 and playing admittedly “awful” soccer, according to Strong, the team had 45 minutes to save the season.

“It was, ‘God what are we doing out here?’” Strong remembers, thinking that maybe the Trojans were giving the Bruins too much respect and not playing their own game.

Maybe it was Khosroshahin breaking a clipboard in the locker room. Maybe it was the screaming. Maybe it was USC junior Amy Rodriquez. The Trojans came out in the second half a new team.

Rodriguez, the U.S. national team veteran, scored in the 67th minute and again seven minutes later to break the spell for the Trojans and send them to the national title game.

And what was weird, Strong says, is that after all the team had been through that season, when the title game came around, she didn’t feel nervous. The biggest moment in her athletic career was that game — and not a tingle.

“I wasn’t nervous at all. It was just like, ‘I’m ready,’” she said. “There is no way we are losing.”

And that feeling never faded, she said. It only became stronger. Stronger still when she sent a long ball from the right flank into the box. The Florida State goalkeeper hit it off the crossbar and it caromed to Marihelen Tomer, who headed it home. The Trojans were up 1-0 with 25 minutes into the game.

“There were a bunch of players in the box, I was just kind of aiming for the back post,” Strong said. “I was, ‘Holy crap, that just happened.’

“We just been dominant; we just needed that first goal,” she said.

With 15 minutes to play, they scored another. Trojans 2, Seminoles 0.

And then was the whistle. And the relief. The Trojans were the first Pac-10 team to win the women’s national soccer title.

And it’s kind of funny to think that one of the reasons Strong picked USC was because it was a relatively new program, so she figured she’d get a chance to make an immediate impact.

“I just had the best feeling about USC. I just felt that the USC program wasn’t that great, I knew that I would get to play. So that is what it came down to,” she said. “I didn’t want to go there to sit on the bench.”

And yet by the time her freshman recruiting class was locked in, it was ranked the top in the nation.

Strong laughs thinking about that now. “Well, this didn’t go as I planned,” she said.

But the playing part, the immediate-impact part, that all went just as she planned. Through mediocre seasons, through a coaching change, Strong saw it through to the game’s ultimate prize. It was Strong, there in the scrum, raising the trophy above her head, pointer finger indicating “No. 1.”

“It’s hard to describe,” she said. “It’s something you read about, something you see. Growing up I was obsessed with North Carolina (winners of 21 national titles), so getting to do that and getting that piece of history, it’s amazing. No one can take that away from you. It’s better than any win I have ever had in my life.”

Strong got to meet President George W. Bush and eat cookies and drink lemonade that summer at the White House. She got to hear the USC fight song played at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She got a diamond-encrusted NCAA champion ring that is an easy conversation starter.

And she got the best memory in the world.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” she said. “Every year, I watch. I know how hard it is to win. I don’t think about it constantly. It’s one of my best memories. It’s something to brag about for the rest of my life.”

I’m with Will Rogers on this one: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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