Danielle Slaton had made up her mind. After passing on Stanford, her parents' top choice, and alternately embracing and resisting the allure of perennial soccer power North Carolina, Slaton, a quicksilver defender, finally committed to Santa Clara, a college only 15 minutes from her home in San Jose. Now all she had to do was wait for her Presentation High and Central Valley Mercury Club teammate Aly Wagner, a highly touted midfielder, to make her decision. "When Aly went on that second visit to South Bend, I was sweating it," says Slaton. "I couldn't imagine not playing with her."
Wagner too passed on her parents' dream school—Notre Dame—and declined the glories that were virtually assured at North Carolina. She realized that, like Slaton, she didn't want to go to a school that already owned umpteen titles. "I wanted to beat North Carolina for the title," says Wagner.
She finally fulfilled that desire on Sunday, when she scored the lone goal as the Broncos beat the defending champion Tar Heels 1-0 to win their first NCAA women's soccer title. Besides putting an end to Santa Clara's long stint as a College Cup also-ran—in seven previous trips to the Final Four in 12 years the Broncos had never reached the championship game—the victory gave the San Jose area its third major soccer title of the year. Earlier the Earthquakes had won the MLS championship, and the CyberRays the inaugural WUSA title.
"When Danielle and Aly decided to come here, I knew they would play in the final," says Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith. "Honestly, I think they're surprised they don't have more championships to their credit."
After all, the two had been a winning combo for years before becoming college teammates. As teenagers they led San Jose's Presentation High to two Central Coast Section titles, and along with future Santa Clara teammate Anna Kraus they led the Mercury, co-coached by Aly's mom, Vicki, to an unprecedented three straight national club championships. While at Santa Clara both Slaton, a senior, and Wagner, a redshirt junior, have spent time with the national team (the former was the only collegian on the silver-medalist 2000 Olympic team, and the latter was an alternate), and both are arguably the best college players at their positions.
Slaton, a former ballerina who as an eight-year-old traveled to the Soviet Union to perform, is nimble and swift, like her father, Frank, who says he was "the slow one" on the San Jose State sprint teams of the 1960s that included Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos. Along with Kraus, also a senior, Slaton anchored a freshman-heavy Broncos defense that shut out 13 opponents and gave up only three goals in the run of play to help Santa Clara go 17-2 during the regular season. On Sunday the Broncos not only blanked the Tar Heels but also limited them to seven shots on goal, 13 below their season average.
On top of that, Slaton is sixth on Santa Clara's career assists list, with 34. According to Smith, though, what really distinguishes Slaton, who's likely to go No. 1 in the WUSA draft in February, is her leadership. Before her sophomore year she was voted co-captain of a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country and had two senior All-Americas. She has been a captain ever since. "Danielle is a take-charge person," the Broncos coach says, "but she never crosses the line to where it's too much, and that's an art."
Wagner's art lies in her deft passes. She can spin and place the ball just about anywhere she wants, which is why she led the nation in assists this year, with 20. "What's difficult about her is, you give her a little space, and she'll shoot; give her pressure, and she'll slip the ball past you," says Florida coach Becky Burleigh, whose Gators lost 3-2 to Santa Clara in overtime in the semifinals last Friday night, thanks in large part to two perfectly placed assists by Wagner.
"Aly is the most skillful player in college soccer, and she's a little like Brandi in that she's not afraid to say she wants to be the best player on the best team," says Smith, referring to his wife, national-team star Brandi Chastain.
Next year Wagner will probably have all to herself the role of best player on the defending national champion team. It's something she doesn't relish. "Danielle and I have played together so long, I never considered playing without her," she says. "I can't imagine what that will be like."