Ahead of Brown’s charismatic preseason fittingness test, nan squad gathered for a diagnostic type sans coaches. They hadn’t moreover started, but Layla Shell was sweating. The steely protect halfway midfielder had conscionable transferred from Tennessee and knew nan stakes of nan grueling tasks up would beryllium moreover higher for a newcomer. Brown was getting fresh to pursuit its 4th consecutive Ivy League title; nan instauration of a player’s run for a starting position aliases activity domiciled tin beryllium built aliases surgery successful nan magnitude of a beep test.
But arsenic Shell looked astir astatine her caller teammates, she sensed a different pre-test frenzy than nan 1 she felt internally. Returning players embraced each different affectionately, appearing to prime up wherever they’d near disconnected earlier that summertime erstwhile they’d played shot and folded pasta connected a group travel to Italy, expressing what Shell felt was confounding excitement astir nan impending workout.
“I’m successful my mind like, ‘We’re astir to tally a fittingness test. Like, this is not gonna beryllium fun. Why are group truthful excited?’” she told The Athletic. “I was truthful nervous, but that showed maine really tight knit of a group it was and really overmuch of a family it was.”
The roots of collegiate women’s shot tally deeper than immoderate of its master counterparts, entrenching it further successful contented than nan short-lived Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer leagues of yore. North Carolina won its first NCAA title successful 1982, and has 21 trophies successful its cabinets — astir double nan number of years nan NWSL, which conscionable concluded its 11th season, has existed. But nan world description of master opportunities successful women’s shot has trickled down to nan collegiate level successful nan past decade, resulting successful a redistribution of that talent that has helped schools for illustration Brown look arsenic formidable contenders successful nan past decade.
Since taking complete successful 2015, Brown caput coach Kia McNeill has cautiously built a programme that treats diverseness not only arsenic a norm but a weapon, and chips distant astatine nan conception that achieving occurrence connected nan section and forging an personality disconnected of it are mutually exclusive. The twelvemonth earlier McNeill arrived, Brown vanished past successful their conference. Four years aft her first season, they reclaimed nan Ivy League title for nan first clip since 1994 — and they’ve won it, undefeated, each twelvemonth since. The squad recovered its measurement backmost onto nan NCAA creation level successful 2021. There’s a two-time Mac Hermann trophy semifinalist and three-time All-American connected their roster. The program’s translator has been swift pinch concentrated results, and yet it still feels arsenic though nan squad is only getting started.
Shifting nan mindset astir nan team, externally and internally, was McNeill’s first bid of business erstwhile she stepped successful astatine Brown.
“I retrieve interviewing coaches who believed we could get nan squad backmost into nan apical four, but that we’d ne'er hit nan goliaths of Harvard and Princeton,” she said of those early days. “And connected nan squad astatine that time, location was this learned helplessness that they had developed complete nan years. We’d beryllium stepping onto nan section for a crippled against Princeton and they’d beryllium like, ‘Here we spell again.’ We’d play Columbia and they’d say, ‘We ever suffer to them.’ As a coaching staff, we had to commencement checking them connected that, reminding them it was conscionable 11-v-11 and not making those games look bigger than what they really were.”
But they besides exposed nan squad to large games extracurricular of their conference, scheduling matches pinch Pepperdine, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Portland. Widening nan team’s perspective, McNeill said, unburdened nan players from their past and helped them recognize what they were tin of.
McNeill besides worked to displacement her ain mindset. A erstwhile pro who’d made stops astatine Northeastern and Boston College earlier her first-time caput coaching domiciled astatine Brown, she felt compelled to alteration her behavior, to outcry and exert power from nan sidelines. That acquisition carried pinch it a instruction she now imparts to her players.
“When you’re not your authentic self, inevitably it conscionable doesn’t consciousness right,” she said. “I’m not a screamer aliases a joystick coach. I’m very collaborative pinch my coaching staff. I thought I needed to beryllium thing different, but I needed to punctual myself that who I americium is what sewage maine here.”
Kia McNeill during a lucifer against Ohio State successful 2022. (Photo: Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brown vanished 3rd successful nan Ivy League aft McNeill’s first season, conscionable down nan goliaths. They climbed to 2nd spot nan pursuing twelvemonth successful 2016, but took a dip successful 2017 and 2018 to 4th and sixth place, respectively, earlier rising to nan apical of nan Ivy League table.
“It’s difficult because each twelvemonth that we’ve had occurrence has looked different,” she said. “You want to person nan aforesaid fundamentals and halfway values, but you person to reinvent a spot who nan squad is, what your motivations are, what’s gonna thrust you done that season.”
This year, nan Bears benefitted from nan acquisition of 10 seniors, anchoring their lineups pinch defender Sheyenne Allen and goalkeeper Clare Gagne connected nan backmost line, and forwards Ava Seelenfreund, Kira Maguire, and Brittany Raphino, nan Mac Hermann semifinalist, connected nan front. But its midfield besides sparkled pinch caller talent successful freshmen Audrey Lam and Joy Okonye, who already person a level of comfortableness connected nan section that could poise them for akin stewardship.
Investing successful her players’ holistic improvement is different portion of who McNeill is. Along pinch reviewing movie and hitting nan weight room, nan squad meets regularly pinch a intelligence skills coach to return banal of their psychological well-being. Raphino said that in bid to “make judge we’re each connected nan aforesaid page,” she and her teammates shape personality workshops to talk societal issues.
“It translates to nan section because we conflict for each other,” she said 1 November nighttime aft Brown fell to Columbia successful other clip of nan Ivy League’s inaugural convention tournament. It was a uncommon loss, conscionable their 2nd successful each competitions this season. “Even successful this game, ‘til nan past minute, we were retired location descent tackling, cheering each different connected ‘til nan past whistle.”
McNeill besides encourages players to return advantage of Brown’s unfastened program program, which allows students to self-design their studies without nan restrictions of halfway classes aliases accepted majors.
“I’ve been capable to return a bunch of classes I ne'er thought I’d beryllium capable to take. Art classes, astrology — I’m a bio major,” said Raphino.
That world fluidity besides applies to nan team’s culture, according to Allen, a midfielder-turned-modern-day extracurricular backmost who plays conscionable arsenic large a domiciled orchestrating goals arsenic she does celebrating them.
“I consciousness for illustration nan coaches, conscionable for illustration we person an unfastened curriculum, are very unfastened pinch really we play. There’s an unfastened speech betwixt unit and players, and we get to talk astir really we spot nan squad and really we want to play.”
The connection “uncommon” hangs successful nan Bears’ locker room arsenic a multipurpose rallying outcry to clasp that which sets them isolated arsenic individuals, and to grant nan long-held belief that winners must return an bonzer attack successful everything they do. Shell said nan locker room is besides adorned pinch a rotating database of achievements.
“You would deliberation a batch of it would beryllium erstwhile players triumph violative aliases protect subordinate of nan week, but it’s like: Clare (Gagne) sewage 100 connected her mathematics quiz, aliases Lucinda (Anderson) sewage money for her investigation successful nan Galapagos.”
An uncommon mentality instantly resonated pinch freshman Joy Okonye. Born successful Lagos, Nigeria, nan crafty-footed winger trained astatine a younker academy successful Accra, Ghana, earlier moving crossed nan Atlantic to a boarding schoolhouse successful Connecticut — correct astir nan clip Brown began its winning streak pinch McNeill astatine nan helm.
Okonye aspires to play professionally and had been prioritizing schools that would champion hole her for that. She hadn’t considered Brown a anticipation until she met McNeill astatine a clinic.
“Talking to Kia conscionable opened nan doorway for maine to explore, spell beyond my boundaries, and dream bigger,” Okonye told The Athletic. “And who doesn’t want an Ivy League education?”
Prior to considering Brown, Okonye hadn’t fixed overmuch thought to diversity. Between nan 2 West African countries she’d grown up successful and a precocious schoolhouse she described arsenic “very achromatic dominant,” Okonye’s main attraction had ever been connected going wherever she could play her champion football. Then she went connected a field sojourn and met nan remainder of nan team.
“It was really bully to spot nan bigger image of nan diverseness that Brown has, much group that look for illustration you and different number groups,” she said.
It isn’t conscionable that Brown’s roster is simply a minority-majority, aliases that they collectively hail from cities that span each region of nan country, positive Nigeria, Canada, and Germany; it’s that McNeill encourages them to harness nan powerfulness of their differences arsenic a weapon. In Brown’s program, diverseness is practiced not arsenic a performance, but arsenic an asset.
“You can’t triumph pinch 1 type of player,” said McNeill, adding that she’s employed a different statement each winning play nan squad has had truthful far. “You mightiness do well, but you’re not gonna really transcend expectations. When you play otherwise pinch group who look different from each different and who travel from different backgrounds successful nan state aliases world, there’s an innate curiosity, respect, love, and camaraderie connected nan team, and that’s a typical point erstwhile you person it.”
Lam said nan team’s eye-test diverseness necessitated early conversations wrong nan squad astir really to find communal crushed connected nan field.
“Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone came from different clubs and playing styles, but evidently nan astir important point is to beryllium connected nan aforesaid page arsenic everyone, truthful whether it’s asking a teammate, ‘Where do you want nan ball? What are your strengths?’” she said.
“I deliberation what makes this squad typical is really unfastened we are pinch each other.”
After going connected their 4th successful Ivy League title tally this season, nan Bears secured a sound 3-0 triumph complete Quinnipiac successful Providence successful nan first information of nan NCAA tournament. Their play ended nan pursuing week against No. 18 Mississippi State, who, for illustration Columbia astatine nan Ivy League tournament, recovered an extra-time victor aft a 1-1 regularisation draw. For nan 2nd clip successful arsenic galore years, Brown had fallen short of breaking into nan tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, but Shell said nan squad will proceed to push against nan ceiling.
“We learned a batch and were still capable to nutrient a really bully assemblage of activity successful nan tournament,” she said, adding her belief that nan ever-competitive Ivy League, which sent Harvard and Princeton to nan tourney on pinch Brown, will proceed to request respect.
After nan loss, nan group had 1 of their past squad dinners of nan season. They sang, danced, and hugged it retired complete plates of tacos, knowing to savor nan infinitesimal earlier it gave measurement to nan blur of Thanksgiving break, reference week, and finals ahead.
“We conscionable wanted to beryllium astir each other,” Shell said, “and I deliberation that’s what’s truthful typical astir this team. We really do win, lose, support each different — we do it each together.”
(Photo of Brittany Raphino: Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)