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Sonoma State women's soccer team has elusive title in sights

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Sometimes the smallest flaws are what sink the biggest ships, but the process of finding those flaws can be difficult. If the big ship is the UC San Diego women’s soccer team, then Sonoma State may be on the verge of exposing that flaw.

The Seawolves will take on the UCSD Tritons in the championship game of the women’s California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) regional playoffs Sunday afternoon, going up against a team that’s eliminated them from the tournament three out of the last four years and twice in the championship game.

To say that SSU head coach Emiria Salzmann Dunn might be frustrated with their history against UCSD may be an understatement, but that’s not the way she chooses to look at it.

After a rough preseason in which Salzmann Dunn, a Sonoma State graduate and semi-professional soccer player, scheduled games against tough competition like Western Washington and Southern Oregon, the Seawolves battled it out to go undefeated in their conference, even besting archnemesis UCSD 1-0 late last month.

“I value the regular-season winner much more than the tournament because the tournament is a tournament, it doesn’t tell the tale of the whole season,” Salzmann Dunn said. “Winning the conference outright, to me, is a much bigger accomplishment than the actual tournament itself.”

After two close losses to Western Washington and Southern Oregon in the preseason, the Seawolves rattled off 12 straight wins, finishing 10-0-1 in conference play and 14-2-1 overall. It was their best regular season since 2015, when they finished 10-0-2 in conference and 14-3-3 overall. UCSD knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round that year.

After so many consecutive years competing at the top of the division, it would be understandable for this team to have a losing season or an off year. Contrarily, the Seawolves seem to improve year over year, culminating in the only two CCAA regional titles the team has ever had, something Salzmann Dunn attributes to the commitment of both the players and the coaches.

“I think our commitment to player development and the technical development of the players once they get here is very high,” she said. “We know that we aren’t always going to get a top recruit. … It’s very important to us to develop the players while they’re here.”

The only thing that’s still missing, however, is that ever-elusive CCAA championship trophy.

After a first-round bye, the Seawolves came into the penultimate game against the 15-4 Stanislaus State Warriors, scoring midway through the first half only to give up a goal moments later. A foul by the Warriors’ Jenna Zuniga near the 60-minute mark set up a penalty kick for SSU’s Julia Pritchard, which she easily put in the lower right corner to ultimately send the Seawolves to a 2-1 victory.

“I’m just really proud of how the team responded and was able to kind of get the game-winner after we gave one up so quickly after we scored,” Salzmann Dunn said in an interview with the CCAA after the game.

If the Seawolves have it their way, this year will be the final chapter in a success story Salzmann Dunn knew was possible the moment she first took over the program in 2011 after four years coaching at the Santa Rosa Junior College. She quietly admits that she couldn’t have anticipated an undefeated season, though, let alone two.

“Our conference is so strong. It’s arguably the strongest Division II conference in the country, so to go undefeated is very rare,” she said. “Of any team I’ve ever had, though, I have this unfailing belief that we can be winners. I’ve never thought that my team couldn’t be a winning team or a top team or a championship team — I’ve never thought that.”

If they can expose that small flaw in the unassailable ship that has been the UC San Diego Tritons women’s soccer program, a team that will graduate to Division I and the Big West Conference next season, then her unfailing belief in this program will become a reality.

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