FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona soccer team went, saw and conquered during its expedition in Spain and in the process grew as a squad both athletically and culturally during an exciting nine days in the soccer-centric country.
"I truly believe that the experience in Spain has opened up the team's eyes in terms of who they can be," said head coach Andre Luciano. "They were exposed to a lot soccer specific things that they would not see in this country. From a team perspective, nothing we could've done could replicate the team bond and chemistry that grew. Individually, their growth and their ability to be exposed to different cultures, languages and foods are things that they'll forever value."
On the field, the Lumberjacks returned home last week with three victories under their belts after four matches against some of Spain's most competitive professional clubs. After a 5-0 loss to the two-time defending Spanish Primera Division champions FC Barcelona in a match that was scoreless at halftime, the Lumberjacks picked up shutout victories in each of their final three friendlies to close out their trip.
The Lumberjacks recorded a 3-0 victory over Sant Gabriel behind a goal each from sophomores Cierra Gamble and Cassidy McLean and junior Mary Harrah. They followed with a second consecutive 3-0 win over CF Badalona with sophomore Haley Wingender notching a multi-goal effort and junior Savannah Berry providing the team's third score. In its finale, NAU exploded for six goals – two each from redshirt sophomore Malia Tano and sophomores Nicole Sherwin and Torey Braly – in a 6-0 blanking of UE Vic. McLean (Sant Gabriel), Wingender (CF Badalona) and Tano (UE Vic) were named the Players of the Match for their performances.
For a team that scored 15 goals during the 2012 season, the Lumberjacks' offseason emphasis on attacking and finishing around goal was on full display overseas. NAU also shut out its opponents in seven of the eight halves it played as it continued its strong defensive efforts from the fall in which it recorded eight shutouts, second most in the Big Sky.
"We used the spring as a testing ground for what we think will be a solid offensive team this year and Spain allowed us to try a variety of different formations and lineups," Luciano said. "The most impressive part for us was that seven of the eight halves we played were shutouts and that gave us confidence going forward especially because we had success throwing different formations and groups together."
The Lumberjacks' success and growth overseas can be the boost the team needs as they chase the program's fourth Big Sky championship in the fall after narrowly missing the conference tournament each of the last two seasons following three consecutive titles from 2008-10.
"We played against FC Barcelona, we played against some other big teams in Spain," Sherwin said. "Now when we come back and play against the teams that led the Big Sky last year, we know we can play against anybody. We're definitely growing a lot and we learned we can compete so going into fall we're going to be a lot stronger because of the experience we had."
"It definitely helps our confidence," senior Alana D'Onofrio added. "The teams we played weren't bad teams; we just clicked. Everyone did what they had to do and coming off this positive note we can take it into the season."
Away from their games on the pitch, the Lumberjacks experienced a wide variety of the country's offerings. From enjoying the Mediterranean beaches to taking in the Montserrat Sacristy of the Cathedral and Salvador Dali Museum to witnessing a live Flamenco show to exploring the streets of several of the country's cities and towns, the team did it all further adding to each individual player's experience. The Lumberjacks also had to opportunity to see the FC Barcelona men's team's La Liga championship parade outside their hotel as well as watch the FC Barcelona men play their final game of the season at the legendary Camp Nou Stadium.
"It was really different," D'Onofrio said. "Old-styled buildings and cathedrals are so popular in Europe and you really appreciate it. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was absolutely amazing; it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. You really appreciate the art that was done hundreds of years ago because it was ahead of its time. It's so different than anything you see in the U.S."
With victories to their name and lifetime experiences and memories in their hearts, the team's tour of Spain is one that everyone will never forget.
"Personally, I have been wanting to go to Spain my entire life because of the soccer atmosphere," Sherwin said. "I'm a soccer junkie so it's been my dream because for me Spain is the capital of the world for soccer. I got emotional at the FC Barcelona game; I had to tell myself that I'm actually here. It was the best trip of my entire life and I could've have asked for anything more. I got to go to a place I wanted, I got to play soccer there and I got to be with my favorite people. It was a definitely a trip of a lifetime."