Sierra Shugarts became only the second defender to earn Player of the Year honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
Sierra Shugarts remembers exactly what it was like to lose to Grand Valley State in the semifinal game of the NCAA tournament during her sophomore season at Western Washington in 2015.
“We’d never been there before, and they had, and they played like they had been there before and we hadn’t,” Shugarts said. “It was very intimidating. Grand Valley State is such a good team. This year, we had to really think, ‘We have the ability. We’re good enough. We deserve this.’
“It was like we had to flip our mental switch.”
82nd Annual MTRWestern Sports Star of the Year
When: Wednesday, reception 5:30 p.m.; show 7 p.m.
Where: The Paramount, 911 Pine Street, Seattle
Male nominees: Jake Browning, UW football; Nelson Cruz, Mariners; Gabe Marks, WSU football; Jordan Morris, Sounders; Bobby Wagner, Seahawks.
Female nominees: Julianne Alvarez, UW golf; Kelsey Plum, UW basketball; Courtney Schwan, UW volleyball; Sierra Shugarts, Western Washington soccer; Breanna Stewart, Storm.
Sports story of the year: UW women’s basketball makes Final Four; UW women’s golf wins national title; UW football makes college football playoff; Ken Griffey Jr. enters the Baseball Hall of Fame; Sounders wins the MLS Cup; Seahawks win the NFC West for the third time in four years
Ticket information: General admission tickets are still available for $35, and they do not include any food or beverage items. Seating will be on the mezzanine level where concessions will be available for purchase. The line for GA will be outside on 9th Ave prior to access at 6:40 p.m.
That’s exactly what the Vikings managed to do in 2016.
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Led by team captain Shugarts, now a junior, WWU beat Grand Valley State 3-2 in the Division II NCAA tournament championship game on Dec. 3 to win its first national title in program history and finish the season undefeated, with a 24-0-1 record.
After the season, Shugarts became only the second defender to earn Player of the Year honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
Now, she’s one of five nominees for the MTRWestern Seattle Female Sports Star of the Year award. UW basketball player Kelsey Plum, UW volleyball player Courtney Schwan, UW golfer Julianne Alvarez and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm round out the list of finalists, and the winner will be announced Wednesday evening, in a ceremony at the Paramount Theater.
Shugart and Alvarez were the only two of the five nominees to win national championships last year for a Washington school, and the WWU junior credits her teammates for the Vikings’ success.
“The whole team bought into our goal of winning a national championship,” Shugarts said. “The freshmen were a huge difference. I think if we could have had the freshmen last year, we would have had two national championships. We had a really deep bench, and any one of our players could have played.”
But the Vikings also had good leadership, said coach Travis Connell, who earmarked Shugarts for the captainship early on because he noticed how well she managed relationships and personalities on the team even as an underclassman.
“As soon as we started recruiting her in high school, we knew she had those qualities,” Connell said. “One of the main things was that other players were drawn to her. They believed in her.”
Connell appointed Shugarts as captain last offseason, but he believes she would have led the team regardless of whether she wore the captain’s armband.
“The players were ready for her to be in that role regardless of how old she was,” Connell said. “It was going to happen. I give a lot of credit to Sierra. In order to win, you need good leadership, and she really stepped forward to take that on.”
Shugart had the presence of mind to mobilize the senior class to help her lead the team, Connell said, but also had the emotional maturity to figure out how to connect individually with each of her teammates.
“She’s a wonderful person and she takes her relationships seriously,” Connell said. “She understands how to treat other people and invests in her relationships, so there’s an immense amount of trust between her and her teammates.”
Shugart also met Connell’s challenge to her at the start of the year, and raised her level of play in her junior season.
“This year, she really took a big step forward, recognizing big moments in big games and knowing she had to step up in the moment and make plays in those big games. That’s where her leadership grew — in her welcoming any opportunity on the field to make a statement and inspire her teammates,” Connell said.
You saw it in the little things, Connell said. For instance, against Bridgeport early in the season, with the Vikings up 2-0, an opposing attacker broke in behind Shugarts and raced down the field, forcing a one-on-one matchup. Refusing to concede, Shugarts tracked down the attacker and blocked her shot.
“It was a statement thing,” Connell said. “Us saying, ‘We’re not gonna give an inch.’ Moments like these are huge in the psyche of a team during the season.”
Shugarts’ toughness was evident in the big moments too, such as the Vikings’ game against the Colorado School of Mines in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. WWU went down 1-0 early and earned a free kick. Shugarts coolly scored on a header, tying the game and galvanizing the Vikings into action. WWU eventually won 5-1.
Shugarts started in all 25 games for the Vikings and finished the season with four goals – surprising even herself because of how rarely defenders score in soccer.
After years of hovering at the precipice, the Vikings finally have a national championship. Even Connell acknowledges they’re in uncharted waters and it’ll be interesting to see how his team deals with its success going into the 2017 season.
But with Shugarts back to captain the Vikings again, they’re already off to a good start.
All through last season, Connell said the Vikings kept track of the number of wins they’d need to clinch a national championship on a white board in their locker room.
The last number on the board before they left Bellingham to travel to Kansas City, Mo., for the Division II semifinals was “2.”
When the team got back to Bellingham as newly crowned NCAA Division II champions, a senior triumphantly erased the “2” on the Vikings’ whiteboard and wrote a zero in its place.
Before the Vikings left for Christmas break, one of the freshmen had already replaced the “0” with a “25”, Connell said.
“Because that’s the number of wins that we need for another national championship,” Connell said.
Less than two months removed from their first national title, the Vikings are already looking forward to their spring season.
“I think the spring will be good for us,” Shugarts said. “We’ll play some Division I teams, and I think we’re only gonna get better, especially with the freshmen a year better and the transfers that are coming in. We’re excited about that.”