The NCAA Division II women's final four hosted is a different city every year — Seattle hosted the 2022 edition — determined years in advance through a bidding process. For Coach Travis Connell's Western Washington's women's team, composed of mostly Pacific Northwesterners, that meant an opportunity to play maybe the most meaningful game of their lives in front of over 1,000 mostly jovial fans, many of whom were friends and family.
"Everything broke the right way," said Connell, who guided Western Washington to a 19-2-4 record en route to the national title game, a 2-1 win over Pennsylvania’s West Chester University.
It was their second ever national championship after Connell guided the Vikings to the program’s first in 2016.
SOCCER AMERICA: How's your offseason treating you?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Busy! When you win, there's all these unexpected things you gotta do and plan outside of the normal calendar.
SA: Such as?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Well, you know, scheduling the first pitch at the Mariners game, walking out at this event or that event.
SA: You can't be complaining about that!
TRAVIS CONNELL: [Laughs] I'm not complaining — it's just a lot more than you're used to. But it's all exciting and enjoyable.
SA: This was your second national championship. Could you compare your 2016 effort with the title you won last season?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Before 2016, we had been to some final fours but had never been to the final. There was still a lot of unknown and anticipation during that run. When you do that for the first time, you feel so much more prepared the more times you're in these experiences. We also lost the final in 2019.
We just felt a lot more prepared — but the biggest thing this year was that this championship was held in Seattle. Many of our kids and myself are from Washington state, so having over 1,000 people, friends and family, your schoolmates, that's just a radically different experience.
Travis Connell, Western Washington's women's head coach since 2003, as a player won the 1993 NCAA Division II national championship with Seattle Pacific with a squad that included his brother Caleb Connell.
SA: What was the key to your success this season?
TRAVIS CONNELL: I've never had a team that improved more in the three-and-a-half months that they were together. It was not an undefeated season — it was a grind. We did have an usually large group of players that played big minutes. There was a learning process that happened. If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, I wouldn't have pictured us in this position now. But the players improved so much throughout the year.
We had amazing leaders and experienced veterans that set an example for the other players and created space for — it's so hard because you come in as a freshman or a transfer and you're literally meeting people for the first time. There's nervousness, doubt, uncertainty — a lot of people don't reach their potential in a year.
Our leaders did a great job to create the space and opportunity for new players to be the leading scorer on our team, and another one that played every minute of every game. The combination of those things and the hunger of the new players to continue to get better and not just be satisfied with starting but with making an impact.
SA: You've been recruiting players to Western Washington for two decades now. How have you seen the recruiting profiles of players change over the years?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Players are just better now. The game just continues to improve — the game changes a little bit, sure, but the players are just more and more prepared, especially physically and technically prepared. Understanding the game tactically, the coaching, the experience. When they get to college, there's just so much more to their game than there was in the beginning or even 10 years ago. That's a big change.
SA: How do you evaluate potential players? Relationship with family? What attributes do you look for in players?
TRAVIS CONNELL: We play defense and we work hard. I mean, that's really it. My center forward only scored four goals this year but she started and played almost every minute because she plays great defense. They have to be able to have a work rate and defend. Those are non-negotiables for us.
But when we watch games — and we watch zillions — we are looking for players who can do something better than the other players out there. It could be anything. We have lots of different shapes and styles and styles of play — our team doesn't look the same every year.
Players have to have the character and have to be able to do certain things — but we're looking for someone who can do something — dominate in the air — we're fine with them having weaknesses. We're not looking for perfectly well-rounded players, we're looking for someone who has a quality that separates them from other players.
SA: Looking back at yourself as a coach early on in your career, what kind of advice do you give yourself?
TRAVIS CONNELL: We can learn so much from our players. I probably didn't see that early on — I was trying to teach the players everything, I had it all figured out.
The longer I coach the more I realize that if I can learn more from them as far as what they're good at, what their natural tendencies are, what they're good at, what they like to do, and if we can incorporate more of that in what our team does, we can become way more successful.
SA: Could you give us an example of that?
TRAVIS CONNELL: We had a left back, Megan Woodman, who was fantastic — all-region player, she actually won a national championship as a rower here at Western after she finished soccer, which is even cooler. But she couldn't strike the ball well. She would hook everything, as some lefties do. For two years we lamented this, worked on it, and it was a source of frustration. It even limited her playing time. In a game during her junior year, our regular corner kick person was out and she ended up taking it. She bent it into the goal.
From then on, she had this massive curl on her free kicks and took all of our set pieces. She's the second in career assists at the school, we scored so many goals on her corner kicks, and I was just blind to it. I fought it the whole time and then realized to myself, 'Oh my gosh, what a dummy, this is fantastic, I should've watched what her natural tendencies were instead of trying to do what I thought was best.'
SA: If you could change any one rule in college soccer, what would it be?
TRAVIS CONNELL: I'm not too sure — the rules are fine. You know what? It's not really a rule in the game, but once you get to the final four, they limit the bench sizes, so we have all of these kids who have to sit up in the stands instead of being on the sideline in the biggest, most important game. So I think that's super lame and doesn't make any sense to me.
I also liked overtime. I know we got rid of that this year [for regular-season games] but I thought that and golden goals [eliminated from postseason overtime] were exciting.
SA: If you could have dinner with three soccer players, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Oh wow. Didn't expect that question. Well, I was a huge Michel Platini fan.
SA: How did you watch him play?
TRAVIS CONNELL: Seriously — I didn't. I actually read Soccer America — I have a Soccer America here on my desk from 1984. Soccer was from Soccer America and that's how we learned about it. My brother Caleb Connell — I do get to have dinner with him monthly, so he would be a player who I'd be happy to have dinner with. And Eric Cantona.
Photos courtesy of Western Washington Athletics/Michael Potash
" We play defense and we work hard. I mean , that's really it. My centerforward
only scored four goals this year but she started and played almost every minute because she plays great defense. They have to be able to have a work rate and defend. Those are non-negotiable for us."
If you want to see what is wrong with American soccer development, why we don't produce creative players, thinkers and great technicians... than read this quote....THIS SAYS IT ALL.........