Credit: Owen Roberts

Before Cal Poly Women’s Soccer took on UC Riverside in what seemed to be an ordinary Sunday, Big West Conference match, midfielder Sophia Minnite told her teammate Annika Smith that she was going to score a hat trick, or three goals, during the game.

Smith brushed off the comment. She didn’t believe it was actually going to happen. But suddenly the goals started pouring in. 

Smith scored her first goal in the sixth minute followed by another in the 29th minute.

Only a few minutes into the second half, Smith secured her third goal of the day off a cross from Minnite. 

Smith became the eighth player in Cal Poly Women’s Soccer history to record a hat trick. Her hat trick was also the first for Cal Poly since 2014, when Elise Krieghoff – a member of the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame – scored five goals in a single game.

As Smith and Minnite celebrated her third goal, many of the players surrounding them were underclassmen like themselves. 

In total, nine players that took the field during Smith’s hat trick game were underclassmen. Seven of them, including Smith and Minnite, were getting their first real minutes as collegiate soccer players this season.

Taking a look at the whole roster, 23 of the program’s 35 athletes are underclassmen this season.

Freshman Annika Smith (44) earned All-Big West Second Team and All-Freshman Team honors in her first season with Cal Poly Women’s Soccer. Credit: Owen Roberts

But even with a majority of players not having multiple years of collegiate experience, the team held first place in the conference until a late loss dropped them to third. 

Nevertheless, the Mustangs are still a contender to win the conference once again that featured seven All-Big West Honors players this past season.

A common thread that links these successful teams is contributions from young players in the program. Last season, midfielder Emily Lieber and defensive midfielder Camryn Penn earned Big West All-Freshman Team honors as the Mustangs were crowned the Big West regular season champions in 2022.

The season before in 2021, the Mustangs reached the Big West Championship game with future All-Big West First Team members defender Emma Brown and goalkeeper Mackenzie Samuel starting for the team as freshmen.

Junior Mackenzie Samuel (99), junior Emma brown (2), sophomore Camryn Penn (30) and freshman Siena Urzua (16) all have made contributions to the team going back to their first years as Mustangs.

This season, Smith, Minnite and freshman midfielder Sophia Moness were named to the All-Big West Freshman team.

To Head Coach Alex Crozier, it doesn’t matter if a player is an underclassman, walk-on or on scholarship.

“Once you step on the field you no longer have a label,” Crozier said. “If you’re tearing it up in training, we’re gonna find a way to get you on the field.”

“We just throw them in the fire.”

Annika Smith didn’t start off the team’s offseason tearing it up. Crozier said the Scottsdale, Arizona native, looked like a “deer in headlights” in the first couple of practices.

Smith said at the start of the team’s training it was difficult for her mentally. However, Smith credits her teammates and leadership on the team for helping her get over her nervousness.

According to Crozier, underclassmen are tested early for the coaching staff to see who can make early contributions. 

“We just throw them into the fire,” Crozier said. 

Smith has grown from a deer in headlights to becoming a key player to the team. She’s started 16 out of 17 regular season games and scored four goals, earning not only a spot on the 2023 Big West All-Freshman team, but she also received Big West Second-Team honors.

Once Smith found her footing, Crozier recognized they needed to get her on the field. 

“There was no way she shouldn’t be playing,” Crozier said.

Sophomore Emily Lieber (37) has been a key piece to the Mustangs’ offensive attack going back to her freshman year last season.

Crozier, who has been at the helm of Cal Poly Women’s Soccer for 32 years, recognizes that young players making mistakes is a part of the process. 

His coaching philosophy keys in on giving them the opportunities to prove themselves during training and sticking behind them even when it gets rough.

This approach has led to multiple underclassmen becoming regular starters on the team despite being early in their collegiate careers.

For sophomore defender Camryn Penn, the trust Crozier has in her helps boost her confidence and makes her more comfortable taking risks.

Penn earned Big West All-Freshman team honors last season and started 16 out of 18 regular season games. In only her second season on the team. She’s already taken a bigger leadership role on the team since there aren’t as many upperclassmen.

Penn’s fellow midfielder Emily Lieber also earned a spot on the Big West All-Freshman Team in 2022. She points out that the upperclassmen the team has now are “paving the way.”

“No one on the team has ever looked down on us because we’re younger,” Lieber said.

Lieber has started all 18 regular season games and recorded three assists so far this season.

As the playoffs continue, Crozier has high hopes for his roster and aims to win the Big West title.

Up next, the Mustangs (9-7-3) head to Fullerton to play UC Davis on Nov. 2nd, at 4:30 p.m. for a spot in the Big West championship match.