When head coach Ged O’Connor took over the Saint Leo women’s soccer program in 2006, he looked to take a young program that had never seen the NCAA postseason and make them a perennial contender. He did just that, starting a run of four straight NCAA postseasons in his rookie campaign. In his first ten years, his Lions have won a regular season title, a tournament title, 95 matches and earned six NCAA postseason bids.
Last year was different, however. The Lions finished 7-8-2 and 3-5-0 in the Sunshine State Conference. They struggled through many injuries and missed out on the postseason.
“There wasn’t that much of a difference in terms of players and the lineup. We were pretty much the same team,” senior forward Arielle Kabangu said. “I think the big difference [this year] is that everybody came in with the same mindset. We were on the same page from the very start. We had the same goals, and it made it easier for the chemistry. As you can see, it’s showing in the results.”Due to their 2015 finish and a stacked SSC that consists of nationally ranked teams like Nova Southeastern, Rollins and Barry, not much was expected of Saint Leo in 2016. They were predicted to finish fifth in the conference and not make much noise nationally. Fortunately, it has been quite the opposite.
Despite dropping the season opener to Mississippi College, the Lions would reel off six straight victories, before dropping another to then-No.16 Rollins. After a big victory against then-No. 9 Nova Southeastern — an impressive 2-0 performance — the Lions skyrocketed up the national rankings, debuting at No. 10 a week ago and settling in at No. 5 seed in the South Region. Five days later, they would wrap up the SSC and claim their first regular season title since 2011.
The Lions have done it behind their SSC-leading offense. Their 2.59 goals per game is tops in the SSC (and 17th in the nation). Leading the attack is Kabangu.
Kabangu is one of Saint Leo’s most decorated players since the program's inception in 2000. She was the SSC Player of the Year during her freshman campaign (as well as Offensive Player and Rookie of the Year) and has since been a two-time All-American as well as earning numerous league and regional honors. This year, she not only paced the Lions on offense, she led the SSC in goals and total points. She has been their go-to goal scorer for her entire career.
“As much as you don’t want to, you think about it,” Kabangu said about the pressure. “Teams see you do it so much, they expect you to do it every time. I try not to let it get to me. I just try to focus on to help the team. If I need to score goals, then that’s what I need to do.”
Kabangu hasn’t had to do it all alone, however. Senior defender Selena Jaimes has spearheaded a defense that has limited opponents to a 1.18 goals against average, for an SSC best 1.41 goal differential per match. She, too, has earned many honors over her Saint Leo career, highlighted most recently being named the SSC Defensive Player of the Year.“Playing for a team that doesn’t have a strong defense, you’re less likely to take risks with the offense," Kabangu said. "Having someone like Selena [Jaimes] and our whole defensive back line that are so in sync with each other, gives me and the other strikers the confidence to try something that may not work. We’ll still try it though because if it works, it’s pretty amazing, and if not, they are there.”
The Lions put it all together this past weekend in the SSC Tournament. They first avenged their earlier loss to Rollins, as Kabangu scored the lone goal in the 1-0 victory. Two days later, the Lions would lead a dramatic second-half comeback, defeating Nova Southeastern for the second time in less than two weeks and capturing the SSC Tournament Championship. It was their first tourney win since 2009 and the first time in program history that they swept both titles in the same season.
“It’s amazing,” Kabangu said. “Individual stats at the end of the day can only do so much, soccer is such a team sport. That team chemistry and team dynamic was there from day one. That’s what makes a team a winning team-- teammates playing for each other. All of the seniors-- there is a big group of us-- we just wanted to finish with something, some sort of trophy. That was our mindset. It was more of an accomplishment for me to win this with my team than any of my All-Region or All-Conference awards.”
Monday night saw the Lions draw the No. 2 seed in the South Region bracket earning them a first-round bye. Tuesday saw Saint Leo jump to No. 7 in the nation. Kabangu, Jaimes and the rest of the Lions know that those numbers are exciting. And, the trophies they have already won are rewarding, but there is still work to be done.
“It’s hard to believe,” Kabangu said. “Over the past three years, there hasn’t been much that has been this exciting, we weren't close to winning anything big. Being able to win two trophies in a week is an amazing feeling. It gives you the courage and the confidence for bigger things. We’ve beat who we've had to, and we know that we can do it again if it needs to be. We are definitely confident that we can make it far in the national tournament.”