Women’s Soccer Team Brings First NCAA National Title to PLNU

Photo courtesy of Robin Jackson. The Sea Lions pose with their championship trophies.

Editor’s Note: This story was published on on Dec. 12, 2023.  The following print version reflects changes in wording to reflect the timeline of events from last semester. 

Point Loma Nazarene University’s women’s soccer team won the NCAA Division II National Championship for the first time in program history with its 1-0 win over Washburn University on Saturday, Dec. 9.

With every fall sport making history this season, the women’s soccer team capped off the historic autumn by bringing home not only its first NCAA national title, but PLNU’s first NCAA national title in any sport.

“This is truly the best Christmas gift ever,” said fourth-year psychology major and forward Alana Diaz. “Winning with this group of girls is so special because we have worked so hard for this. We couldn’t have done it without the other teams in the past who paved the way for us.”

In the last four postseasons, PLNU struggled with going beyond the second round of the regional tournament. This season, the team hoped to break through the second-round barrier and play into December. 

“This year, we just really wanted to break that curse,” said fourth-year marketing major and PacWest Defender of the Year Emma Thrapp. “We just wanted to keep hanging out with one another and the only way to do that was by winning.”

And that’s exactly what they did. 

Going into the national title match, the Sea Lions were riding on the momentum of a 10-game winning streak and four-straight postseason shutouts. They shut out Concordia, Seattle Pacific, University of Colorado Colorado Springs and Florida Tech to make it to the final game of the postseason.

“I just wanted to make it to the third round of the tournament, and then before I knew it, we were competing for the title,” said Thrapp.

It was the team’s win over the Florida Tech Panthers that secured its spot in the national title game. In rare fashion, the Sea Lions couldn’t find the back of the net in the first half of the game, but PLNU’s commanding defense and three second-half goals — two by Diaz and one by Bethany Arabe — got the job done.

Arabe, a fourth-year forward and biology-chemistry major, said it was Diaz’s goal, which broke the 0-0 stalemate, that gave her the freedom to take advantage of opportunities she saw.

“I felt free to have some fun in the front,” said Arabe.

This fun put the Sea Lions up 2-0 with a goal that Arabe said was exciting but shocking.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Arabe. “It felt almost too good to be true. They called it a ‘wonder goal’ which I think is fitting because I’m still wondering how that happened. I also have to give credit to Naomi [Ellis], as it was such a perfect through-ball from her.”

Diaz added to the team’s lead shortly after with her second goal, which she called “the cherry on top,” making the final score 3-0.

In the national title game, the shutout defense of PLNU met another dominant defense in the Washburn University Ichabods. The teams kept each other from breaking the 0-0 score during the first half, which included a major one-on-one save by PLNU’s second-year goalkeeper Julia Pinnell, who did not allow a goal in the last 915 minutes and 35 seconds she played in 2023, according to PLNU Athletics.

Despite not scoring, the Sea Lions were on the hunt, outshooting the Ichabods 10-3 in the first half.

Less than 10 minutes into the second half, the Sea Lions’ consistency in creating quality goal opportunities paid off. In the 53rd minute, a corner kick by first-year midfielder Grace Nelson met the head of Thrapp to send the ball into the back of the net.

“Grace Nelson hit an amazing corner,” said Thrapp. “I didn’t have to do too much because she placed the ball on my head. It was a very exciting moment.”

The excitement of the goal flowed into a minute-long celebration that involved the whole team. In a video of the goal posted to X by @PLNUSeaLions, Thrapp embraces with her teammates on the field and does a cartwheel with Diaz before heading over to the Sea Lion bench to include the entire team in the historic moment.

“You know you are lucky when your teammates are more excited for you to score than you are,” said Thrapp. “The bench brings so much encouragement and overall energy to the game, and I wanted to celebrate that with them also.”

Before leaving the sideline, the video shows Thrapp making her way past the bench to the athletic trainer’s table where the trainers were treating fellow defender third-year Jensen Shrout for an injury she sustained earlier in the game.

“At halftime, we all decided that we were going to be playing for her,” said Thrapp. “She played a huge part in getting us to that game, and it didn’t feel right to not have her out on the field celebrating that goal with us. She loves this team so much, so it was important to me that she was a part of that moment.”

Arabe said that Shrout has been a huge target for corner kicks this season, so with her out due to injury, Thrapp had to step up.

“This goal is a perfect example of how our team plays for one another, and how we care deeply for one another on the field,” said Arabe. “Also, we’ve struggled to score off corner kicks in the past. So to finish with a goal off a corner kick, it’s almost like a cherry on top, a storybook way for our historical season to close.”

Arabe added that it is this deep care that each team member has for one another that she thinks sets them apart from other teams. She said the group is talented and dedicated, but so are many other teams; it’s the things behind the scenes that made this team the national champion.

“It’s things like singing acapella on the bus, having team Bible studies, making music videos, getting ‘Feral’ [the team’s mantra] henna tattoos, playing Mafia and doing our silly superstitions that bring us close together,” said Arabe. “We just like to be together and have fun together. So before the biggest game of our lives, the NCAA Division II National Championship, we calmed the nerves by dancing in the locker room and having fun with some model catwalks.”

Other behind-the-scenes difference makers include the encouragement given to the women from head coach Kristi Kiely as well as the team’s pregame devotional from Kiely’s friend Sarah Rumely Noble, who is the head volleyball coach at Appalachian State University and a University of Kentucky Hall of Famer and SEC Legend.

Kiely said such a big stage like the national championship game sets itself, so she didn’t need to do much motivating and instead focused on calming her athletes’ nerves and reminding them who they are.

“From the beginning, we said we wanted to do this by being us,” said Kiely. “We’re either going to fall being us, or we’re going to go to the end being us. So in the final, I told the girls, ‘You’re playing another soccer game today with your friends. That’s all it is.’”

During the team’s traditional pregame devotional, Arabe said Rumely Noble told the team to view the title game as a “thank you performance,” which gave the Sea Lions a good mindset heading into the game.

“It also allows us to express gratitude through our play to those who have helped us get to where we are today — our families, our coaches and staff, our friends, the faculty, our teammates and our God,” said Arabe. “Our hope is that our play is a demonstration of our gratitude.”

Ultimately, the goal by Thrapp, who was named the NCAA Championships Most Valuable Player, was enough to bring the first national title home to PLNU. Alongside Thrapp, Pinnell, Diaz and Arabe were named to the All-Tournament Team.

Kiely said that even though she, her coaching staff and the team were the ones to bring home PLNU’s first national title, this level of success is a reflection of the support the team has received since its beginning.

“We are grateful and we’re proud, and it’s also many years of a lot of support and work by colleagues and administrators and students certainly along the way that have been so supportive,” said Kiely.

The Sea Lions not only finished the season as national champions, but they set a new program record for most wins in a season since joining the NCAA with 17 (17-3-1 overall) and finished on an 11-game winning streak, tying the record for the longest winning streak in program history.

Even with all the broken records and the trophies, Kiely said it’s the small moments that make her feel like she’s doing her job as a coach.

“My job is to inspire and motivate,” said Kiely. “But it is so sweet when it can be both ways, for me to sit down in different quiet moments and be able to reflect and to watch them laugh with each other. That’s the stuff nobody knows and nobody sees, the work that they put in. And we don’t always get to reap the fruit, but I’m so grateful that we did because they put a lot of hard work in. I’m very very proud of them.”