Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the Loman Empire.

After reaching at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament for four-straight seasons, including playing in one regional championship game, PLNU women’s soccer broke through in 2023 to win Point Loma’s first-ever NCAA national championship in any sport.

PLNU team in control of the ball while running on the field.
PLNU’s game against Concordia University Irvine in the NCAA West Regional.

The team was able to draw from those previous postseason experiences to help push the Sea Lions over the top and make history.

“There’s been so much learning since we’ve been here, seeing years impact years and one year impact the next one,” said Head Coach Kristi Kiely, who just finished up her sixth year in charge.

Notably in 2022, Point Loma lost in the NCAA second round for the second-consecutive year to Western Washington, who went on to win the national title that season.

“We are process-oriented and believe in growth, so last year was part of that process,” Kiely said. “Last year was very, very frustrating. Other teams were scoring goals with one or two looks at goal. We were tying or losing, or games were tight, and that’s a part of the process.

“All that learning, all those moments of disappointment. Last year in particular I remember being at Western and feeling like that year we were going to do it. Then we lose 1-0 again, and I remember telling them, ‘Remember how this feels right now, and I want you to make sure you don’t feel it again next year.’

“And here we are not feeling it.”

However, winning a national title, let alone making the postseason, didn’t seem particularly likely after four players suffered season-ending injuries during the spring, and the team started PacWest play 2-2.

Those two conference losses were as many as the team had in the previous five seasons combined.

Photo of Naomi Ellis, and her quote, which says: “When we started out on not the greatest foot, we just completely turned it around after the last loss of the season. We were forced to play to our absolute highest potential. We were playing with the utmost desperation, but we banded together instead of breaking
apart. It was really defining. That’s when we knew this was something different from any season prior.”
Naomi Ellis, outside back
(defender), graphic design
major with a concentration in
marketing, Elite 90 Award
winner for having the
highest cumulative GPA
(4.0) of any player at the
NCAA Championships

“In that moment, they just made a choice that it has to be better, or we won’t go to the postseason, that our season would end now,” Kiely said.

That was just the latest choice in a string of choices that Kiely said helped the team accomplish what it did.

“There were many moments to choose something else and this particular group never did,” Kiely said. “They chose this vision, and that means we’re going to have high standards. We’re going to hold each other accountable to those, and we’re going to care about each other in deep and meaningful ways. That’s what we’re choosing.

“There are a lot of choices you make in college athletics and a lot of sacrifice. Along the way they made a lot of choices. None bigger than the Covid moments and Africa.”

For eight seniors on the team, they began their PLNU careers in 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic, choosing to stay on The Point amidst tremendous uncertainty.

“They started their college careers in a dorm room by themselves during Covid with only 400 people on campus,” Kiely said. “Many of them were thinking, ‘Should I quit? Is this really what college sport is? The world is really in a different spot right now. That means for four months I have to be in a dorm by myself in this strange world of Covid.’ Honestly, it feels like it started back then. All those moments of choosing.”

Another key choice was the group’s decision to go to Africa this past May, serving alongside nonprofit organization Sports Outreach for nearly two weeks in Uganda and Kenya.

“To choose to spend your time and money with people you don’t know doing whatever is asked of you is wonderfully selfless,” Kiely said. “Then you jet off on many planes to another part of the world that you’ve never been to. They had the courage and willingness to do that.”

The bonding that occurred during that Africa trip helped the group rally together, even when results weren’t going PLNU’s way.

“This group just enjoyed being around each other, and Africa played a role in that,” Kiely said. “Even those who didn’t go knew exactly what was going on when we got back. They were invested and watched every video. When stories were told, they were able to participate. That storytelling, that respect for each other’s experiences and what they’d experienced together, all of it just helps. It helps with the familiarity.

Photo of Julia Pinnell, and her quote, which says:
“There are so many different things
we do together when we are traveling
versus when we are home. We make a
point of being together, playing mafia,
having team dinners. We connect off the field and hang out in those different ways.”
Julia Pinnell, goalie, applied health sciences major,
NCAA All-Tournament Team

“My grandpa was a college coach, and he always used to say, ‘You see a person best when they’re cold, tired, and hungry.’ Nothing gets you more cold, tired, and hungry than travel. Being around people when you’re tired of them and still being able to look kids in the face and play soccer with them or swing a hammer, whatever you’re being asked to do, that does something to you individually and collectively.”

The camaraderie of the group was evident in its response to its 2-2 start to PacWest play, as the Sea Lions closed out the trip to Hawaii with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Hawaii Pacific followed by an even more impressive 3-0 win over No. 5 Hawaii Hilo.

Those two wins began a six-match winning streak to close out the regular season, which was enough to earn the Sea Lions a fourth PacWest championship in five seasons.

“When a couple conference games went our way, on the last one, I woke up to texts from my players which is shocking because I’m usually the first,” Kiely said. “They were never out of it, and I don’t know if doubt is the best word, but there was a lot of uncertainty of can we even make the tournament?

“I think we lived in that uncertainty for a couple weeks and then a couple matches went our way, but nothing changed in our training or matches. They were still locked-in; they were just more and more locked the more the results went our way.

“We had dreams at the beginning, moments of uncertainty in the middle, and a lot of belief at the end.”

That belief carried over into the postseason, which Point Loma hosted for the first time as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional.

This group of seniors was finally able to get over the hump of the second round after beating PacWest foe Concordia, who’d won the last three matchups in the series.

Kiely said: “When we beat Concordia in the postseason, I turned to a captain and said, ‘You know we can do this right?’ And she said, ‘I know we can; we just have to get out of the West.’”

That 2-0 win earned the team the right to play the regional final and ultimately the national quarterfinals in Colorado, where they had played just a couple months prior.

Bethany Arabe, posing with a soccer ball, and her quote, which says: “We couldn’t have done it without the
group that came before us. Alumni
would text us and wish us luck and
the best. I would respond, ‘We are
doing it for you guys. We couldn’t
have done it without you.’”
Bethany Arabe, forward, biochemistry
and Spanish double major, NCAA All-
Tournament Team

A primary motivation for that non-conference trip to Colorado was the possibility of playing there again in the NCAA Tournament, which Kiely outlined to the team in a PowerPoint presentation during training camp.

“In that preseason slide was a picture of the Rockies, and in the postseason slide was a picture of the Rockies,” Kiely said. “We didn’t know if we were going to end up in Texas or Colorado, but part of the divine nature is I just wanted to do something different than the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to face a different opponent.

“DII is so regional that I wanted somebody else to expose something different for us to grow in a different way and that happened.”

After beating Seattle Pacific in the regional championship, 2-0, PLNU advanced to once again face off with UCCS, the team that gave the Sea Lions their first loss of the season.

“It’s divine that that’s who we ended up playing,” Kiely said of playing both Concordia and UCCS in the postseason. “Sometimes you need that extra motivation in a particular moment in a match, and you get to draw from those experiences.”

But that wasn’t the last divine moment for the Sea Lions, as after a commanding 3-0 victory over Florida Tech advanced Point Loma to the national championship, the defining moment of that final game was decided on a corner kick routine, one in which the team executed to perfection earlier in the season.

In the team’s impressive win over Hawaii Hilo, starting center back Jensen Shrout was nursing an injury, meaning All-PacWest midfielder Mara Sovde moved to the back line and freshman Grace Nelson entered the lineup. Nelson was then responsible for taking the corner kicks, one of which the team scored on.

So when Shrout, an All-Conference player, exited the national championship game through injury, Nelson stepped in once again and delivered a pinpoint corner kick for All-American Emma Thrapp to score what proved to be the winning goal.

“You practice all of these things that you never know when they’re going to show up or when you’re going to have to reach into the toolbox and grab out those experiences,” Kiely said. “It’s incredible that what we practiced in Hilo was going to show up, not by our own choosing, but that it showed up in the national tournament final.

“So much so that I could go to a captain and say, ‘We’re good; we’ve done this before’ and her response was, ‘I know coach; you don’t have to tell me.’ That’s remarkable to be able to draw from that, knowing we were successful before and we’re going to do it again. And then they did.”

PLNU soccer team running accross the field celebrating after their win.
The PLNU Women’s Soccer team celebrates their victory in the NCAA Division II Championship game.
Emma Thrapp kicking the ball.
All-American Emma Thrapp (defender) scored the winning goal in the national championship game with the help of freshman Grace Nelson.

Dr. Brower and Bethany Arabe posing with the NCAA trophy.
Dr. Brower with Bethany Arabe

The win meant Point Loma tied a program record with an 11-game winning streak, capping off a streak of five straight shutouts in the postseason, as goalkeeper Julia Pinnell didn’t concede a goal in her last 915 minutes and 35 seconds played.

“Julia was sharp when she needed to be at the end and that helps,” Kiely said. “Our backline was tremendous, but some of that is the ball just has to bounce your way. It was a bit divine.”

Achieving the ultimate goal in Division II women’s soccer was just another experience the team can continue to learn from.

“Experience after experience they get to draw from and it doesn’t just stop in the championship game,” Kiely said. “They get to do it for life. Life gets harder in many ways, and you have to pull from these moments.

“Whatever it is that we learn from this sport, we get to apply in life. Now they get to do that. A lot of talk about process, growth, experience and choices and drawing from those. That was wrapped up into what we did.”

And with only one player graduating from last year’s team and every senior coming back for their final season of eligibility, that process is far from over.

PLNU Women's soccer team, friends, and family in a crowd posing with their congratulatory signs.
Friends and family welcomed the team home after their big win.
PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.