How the development of women's soccer is fueling Cal Lutheran's NCAA rise

Shannon Pennington has spent more than half her life with the Cal Lutheran women’s soccer team, first as a player, next as a graduate assistant, then for the last quarter-century as an assistant coach. And CLU has accomplished a lot during that time, winning 16 conference championships and making 16 NCAA tournament appearances.

But Thursday, when CLU faces Tufts in the Division III semifinals, will bring a new experience because for all the team’s success the Regals have never made the final four of an NCAA tournament.

“You know, it is still kind of hard to believe,” Pennington said. “Every year you set out to win your league, make it into the NCAA tournament and the further you go, the better. But it was never anything like this.”

It wasn’t a fluke. At 18-1-5, this year’s team is the best in school history. The Regals outscored opponents 43-12 and posted 14 shutouts. The only loss was a 1-0 result against Pomona-Pitzer in the SCIAC tournament final, one they reversed in the second round of the NCAAs before upsetting unbeaten and top-ranked Christopher Newport University on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.

“We’ve had some good teams. We’re always competitive,” said head coach Frank Marino. “But to go deep into the playoffs, it’s about the margins, it’s the details, the little things. And this team just has the blue-collar grit. They play for each other and that’s made a big difference.”

Pennington, 48, has waited a long time for this. She played her first game for the school in 1993, five years after the program was founded and three seasons after it left the NAIA for the NCAA. That was also just two years before the second women’s World Cup, where some games were played in the equivalent of high school stadiums before “crowds” of fewer than 700.

Last summer’s tournament in Australia/New Zealand drew an average attendance of more than 30,000 and was watched by a global TV audience estimated at nearly 2 billion. That spectacular growth in just a generation, Pennington said, has trickled down to programs like CLU’s.

“The facilities, like we didn’t have any of this when I played,” she said. “I’ve told the girls you’re so lucky to have strength and conditioning. You have a spring season. We had to do that on our own and be self-disciplined.”

The increase in popularity and participation in girls’ and women’s soccer has transformed the sport at the small-college level. The number of girls playing prep soccer has increased by more than a quarter-million since Pennington graduated high school and more than a thousand NCAA schools now field women’s teams — 441 at the Division III level. That means more players and more places for them to play.

And successful lower-division schools such as Cal Lutheran, located in soccer hotbeds like Southern California, have benefited the most.

“What we’re seeing is Division I kids that have either started at a Division I and they’re not winning, they’re not playing a lot, they’re not enjoying their experience and they go, ‘I want to play and I want to win’,” said Marino, whose roster includes two Division I transfers. “A kid that comes here, legitimately we have a chance to win a national championship. For some kids, that’s more fun. And the environment is good. Players are supportive, they care about each other.”

That last point has been key to CLU’s success this season, Pennington said. The Regals’ roster is not only deep — 18 players have scored at least once — but extremely close as well.

“They have good relationships on and off the field. That helps,” she said. “They’re there for each other. They just have a really good sense of family. When you have a team like that, that’s close on and off the field, that definitely helps contribute to the level of play.”

That will be tested Thursday when CLU, unranked in the latest United Soccer Coaches national top 25, faces Tufts (11-5-4) in the national semifinals in Salem, Va. And if the Regals get past that, they’ll face the winner of the other semifinal between second-ranked Washington University (17-1-3) and Messiah (21-2-0), a six-time Division III champion, in Saturday’s title game.

Pennington said she’s not sure what to expect since neither she nor her program have been here before. But CLU’s approach, she promised, won’t change.

“We just keep saying ‘it’s a beautiful day to play soccer,’” she said. “We have this good feeling behind us. It’s incredible. Quite an experience for everybody.”

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