Pride of Lions seeks title

In many ways, their journey began at the destination.

Now, four years later, Vanguard University seniors Rachel Rucireta, Amanda Couch, Lauren Evans and Charlotte Wisniewski will once again fly just more than 2,000 miles and play as many as four games in an attempt to retrieve their destiny.

The four friends, teammates and roommates since arriving at the Costa Mesa Christian school as women's soccer recruits, have, in many ways come full circle as they prepare to compete in the round of 16 at the NAIA Championships in Orange Beach, Ala.

They have also come of age, both on the field and off, forming roughly one-third of the lineup for the winningest team in the program's history.

The No. 2-ranked Lions (17-2) open in Alabama on Monday morning against Baker University of Kansas (13-6-1) at 11:30 Pacific Time.

On a 13-game winning streak that includes Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles, 11 shutouts and a combined 42-2 goal differential, this four-member pride of Lions carries the stinging memory of the program's first trip to the "Final Site" NAIA Tournament in 2009.

"It was a brutal game," Rucitera, whose next start will be her 76th at Vanguard, recalled of the 6-1 drubbing by then-GSAC rival Point Loma Nazarene that rendered the 2009 Vanguard unit one-and-done in the self-proclaimed Heart of Dixie. The Lions had allowed just nine goals in their first 20 games.

"There were own goals and there was rain," Rucireta said. "We had beaten that team twice before that season, so I don't think we had the right mentality for that third meeting. Our goal was to make it to nationals and I think we were pretty humbled by getting our butts kicked that first game."

Evans, who like Wisniewski played for Vanguard Coach Randy Dodge at Aliso Niguel High, said that 2009 trip to Alabama that followed a 15-match unbeaten streak, was almost whimsical.

"It was our first time going to nationals and we were all really excited," Evans said. "I think we exceeded the expectations of the school and the coach, even the team. We were on this high when we got to nationals, then [the loss] was really disappointing. Since then, our goal has been to get back there again. It's really cool that it has happened our senior year.

"At the beginning of the [2012 season], we talked about not only wanting to get there, but to do something better there," Evans said. "Our goal this year has been to win it and I think that the team, as a whole, really thinks we can go all the way, that we have everything."

The ingredients for winning such as talent, depth and health, also include many intangibles, these players, as well as Dodge, believe.

"Randy has always stressed that the team needs to become a family," Rucireta said. "Our freshman year, the seniors really set that in stone for us. Over the [last two] years, I think that got lost a little bit. But I think this year, our team chemistry is amazing."

Wisniewski, a holding midfielder, said there are real and less-explainable reasons behind this team's togetherness.

"I think there has to be somewhat of an organic that creates chemistry," Wisniewski said. "But it's also the effort we put in hanging out and getting to know each other. This year, we made a conscious effort to try to get to know each other and be there for each other."

The results have shown on the field.

"We would not be where we are if we did didn't honestly get along," Rucireta, a center midfielder, said. "We fight for each other and it's not really about individual things this year. It's not about who scores the goal. It's everything from our defense to our midfield to our forwards."

Evans said she felt the familial support when she missed the GSAC Tournament semifinal while undergoing an appendectomy.

"The first person, other than my immediate family, to come see me in the hospital was Randy and that's who he is," said Evans, a center defender who returned to the field in Saturday's 3-0 NAIA tournament first-round win over Embry-Riddle of Arizona. "Following him were all my best friends [her teammates]. I think almost the whole team came to see me."

Said Couch, a center midfielder and forward who has 17 goals the last two seasons and 10 game-winning goals in her career: "We all wrote [Evans'] No. 21 on our hand [before a 2-0 win over The Master's that preceded a 2-1 victory over Biola in the GSAC Tournament final], so she was there with us, and we were going to fight for her. I thought it showed how important she was to our team."

Vanguard players continue to fight for one another, the senior quartet said.

"I think we can look on everything we've accomplished this year and hold it close to our hearts," Wisniewski said. "But at the same time, every single game, we're playing like it's our last game. We don't want our season to end short. We want to go all the way and we want to have the full time together."

Twitter: BarryFaulkner5

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