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Benefield: Maria Carrillo grad Bria VarnBuhler is Division III soccer player of the year

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Bria VarnBuhler has had a lot of memorable moments in the last few weeks. It’s difficult to pick out the biggest.

VarnBuhler, a 2016 Maria Carrillo grad who was part of a Pumas squad that won four straight Division 1 North Coast Section girls soccer titles, helped lead her Pomona-Pitzer women’s soccer team to an overtime win over the University of Chicago in the NCAA Division III sectionals, then to a penalty-kick victory over Washington University in the section finals a week later, before falling 2-0 to William Smith in the Final Four on Dec. 6.

Finishing with a record of 20-2-2, the Pomona-Pitzer women’s soccer team had the best season in the history of the program. But there was more: In mid-December, VarnBuhler, a senior slated to graduate with a chemistry degree in May, got a call informing her that she had been selected as the NCAA Div. III United Soccer Coaches Player of the Year.

“That one shocked me, when I got that phone call,” she said. “I was, ‘What? Me? Why?’ ”

It’s likely the shock subsided because those calls just kept coming: D3soccer.com Midfielder of the Year; Div. III Honda Athlete of the Year finalist for soccer; Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year; United Soccer Coaches Scholar All-American; and her third all-SCIAC first-team nod.

VarnBuhler is the first Pomona-Pitzer player to be named Div. III player of the year and only the fifth ever from a West Coast school. The last time a West Coast player won was in 2005.

“There were literally games where the entire strategy was trying to shut her down,” Pomona-Pitzer coach Jen Scanlon said of her central midfielder. “It was man-to-man marking and that person would follow her all over the field — she’s still scoring 21 goals.”

And those goals — nine of which were game winners — is a program record for a single season. VarnBuhler, a starter since her freshman campaign, was an all-conference first-team pick three years running.

“Since she got here, the nickname we have for her is ‘Sticky Feet,’ ” Scanlon said. “She can literally be falling down, with one hand on the ground and the ball stays at her feet.”

VarnBuhler started her career with the Sagehens as a defensive midfielder when a starter got hurt. VarnBuhler got the nod and never let it go.

“It kind of opened up a spot for me,” she said. “I think I got kind of lucky and got to show myself a lot more.”

She spent two seasons as a defensive midfielder before the Sagehens needed a more goal-scoring pop and Scanlon moved her to an attacking midfielder spot. She scored nine goals as a junior.

Technically gifted, VarnBuhler blossomed as a scorer when she let go of wanting every shot, every setup, to be perfect, Scanlon said.

“Part of that, honestly, was just shooting sooner,” Scanlon said. “It just takes a little window.”

And both player and coach joked that not every goal VarnBuhler netted was a picture of beauty. But a goal is a goal.

“Not all of them were pretty,” VarnBuhler said. “I think I scored with my face, falling down.”

But pretty or not, the goals started piling up. And when that happened and opponents got wind of the danger that VarnBuhler represented, her windows of opportunity got smaller. Man-to-man marking became the norm.

“I just had to play smarter and play faster and use other people more,” she said. “In games like that there are more chances for other people to shine.”

Scanlon acknowledged that the Sagehens scored — literally — when VarnBuhler, coming from that Maria Carrillo team and a wildly successful Santa Rosa United squad, decided to extend her soccer career at Pomona-Pitzer four years ago.

“She could have played DI if she wanted to, I’m certain of that,” Scanlon said.

But it turns out VarnBuhler has her eye on more than just athletics. She’s a chemistry major and academic All-American who is eyeing PhD programs at the University of Washington, Yale, Princeton and MIT.

Plus, she wanted to get on the field. She didn’t think that would happen at a Division I program.

“Someone of my skill level wouldn’t get a lot of playing time my freshman, sophomore, maybe even junior year,” she said.

The training, the travel — VarnBuhler wanted balance in her college experience.

“I didn’t want soccer to control my life like it might have had I done DI,” she said. “I’m a science major. I have to take lab classes. You can’t really get away with that as a DI player.”

Case in point: During her junior season, VarnBuhler had four lab classes and every one made her about 30 minutes late to practice. “At a DI school that would be unacceptable, but my coach was ‘Academics first,’ ” she said.

And this season, as the Sagehens were roaring through the NCAA tournament and racking up air miles, VarnBuhler was breaking her back to get her classwork finished as the semester wound down, all the while completing a pile of graduate school applications.

“I pulled an all-nighter the day before our flight to the Final Four,” she said. “That was madness. It was crazy.”

As the biggest sporting weekend of her life inched closer, she also had a massive physical chemistry project due.

She and her project partner — a former soccer player who presumably understood VarnBuhler’s time struggle — Facetimed for a total of 407 minutes that weekend, VarnBuhler said with a chuckle. VarnBuhler and the Sagehens flew east on a Wednesday and the project was due Friday.

The topic of the project? Something about mapping the infrared spectrum of a molecule and “a lot of analysis on it with math and equations.”

They got an A.

VarnBuhler loves it. She is thinking about becoming a professor. Both of her parents are teachers at Rincon Valley Middle School.

That balance between high-level athletics and high-level academics will play out again later this month when VarnBuhler flies east to not only check out PhD programs but to pick up her Player of the Year award in Baltimore.

Truth be told, all of the accolades sound like they make VarnBuhler just slightly squeamish.

“I think more is packed into that award than just an individual award,” she said. “Most of my goals came from a brilliant cross from a teammate or the ability of my team to get the ball up the field. If they can’t do that, I’m not scoring goals.

“I appreciate the recognition,” she said. “But I thought, I don’t know, it’s a little bit much for what I thought I deserve.”

And yet there is a whole passel of coaches and officials who roundly disagree and who will be on hand when she is honored as Player of the Year. It’ll likely be another memorable moment to add to a whole — growing — list of them.

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. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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