The seeds were planted years ago, then cultivated this spring, and Kit Vela began to sense something special would come of this harvest.
And on Monday it happened.
The University of New Mexico women’s soccer program received an invitation to the NCAA Women’s College Cup for the first time in school history.
Coach Vela’s Lobos (12-2-5) will face fourth-seeded Notre Dame in the opening round on Friday in South Bend, Ind.
“This is the culmination of the last 10 years,” Vela said.
Last season the Lobos had only one senior, so this year Vela had a group that had gained some experience together.
In the spring, Vela threw what she calls “some funky things, some different kinds of training sessions” at them. They were tough, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“This group said, ‘OK, whatever you say, we’ll get it done,'” Vela says. “No matter what we threw at them, they were willing to do it.”
She mixed in a couple of talented freshmen with personalities that fit the others, and the team was formed.
“We’ve got great team chemistry,” Vela says. “They truly like each other.”
The Lobos earned their first Mountain West Conference regular-season championship this year. One of their featured wins was over then-No. 8 Brigham Young, which is also in the NCAA Tournament.
Junior forward Jennifer Williams, an education major, led the Lobos with 23 points and was named MWC offensive player of the year. She was injured and did not play against BYU in the conference title match, but Vela says “she will be up and running” for Notre Dame.
Sophomore goalkeeper Kelli Cornell, a business major who surfs and snowboards, is the league’s defensive player of the year. She recorded 10 shutouts and has a 0.40 goals against average.
Senior Rachel Fields, a history major, scored six goals for the Lobos this season.
“This is our sixth year of winning,” Vela says. “That’s a huge accomplishment in itself. It’s been building up to this.”
And while the Lobos respect Notre Dame and its women’s soccer tradition, Vela says her players were not intimidated when they found out they would face the Irish.
“Notre Dame is awesome,” Vela says. “Notre Dame’s got a great program, great tradition. We’ve watched them for years. But they are one of the 64 just like we are.”
Vela says UNM’s schedule helped prepare her team.
“We’ve played Marquette, played BYU, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nebraska, teams in that vein,” she says. “On the one hand, we’re happy to be going, but we’re not satisfied.”