They say that everything is bigger in Texas. When it comes to college soccer on the NCAA’s women’s side, that certainly holds true.
The Texas A&M Aggies have a big reputation. The team has made it to every NCAA Tournament since 1995, one of only five schools nationally to do so.
The University of Texas – who always have a Longhorn-sized target on their back – have put together one of the top incoming recruiting classes for 2021.
So when the two programs keep their eyes peeled for new players, the talent level has to be big.
With 18 conference championships in the past 23 years, and an incredible NCAA tournament streak, the Texas A&M Aggies have set a very high standard.
When Coach G Guerrieri was talking with Whitecaps FC manager of collegiate transition Ryan Clark, who he has known for many years, he told him that he was looking for “special”.
And that was exactly what he found in Andersen Williams, one of Canada’s rising attacking talents, and a star at the time with Canada’s U-20 national team and the Whitecaps FC Girls Elite REX program in partnership with BC Soccer.
Her talent combined with her time with the ‘Caps made her a perfect fit for Coach G.
“I kept telling Andy the whole time, listen you’re going to fit right in with what we do, because right now you are doing the same thing. We wake up, we go in to the gym and get a lift, we do our fitness, we go to school, we focus on our academics, and we train in the middle of the day. You will not skip a beat coming in.”
During her freshman season last year, Williams was working hard to become an impact player as an attacking threat for the Aggies. But in October of 2020, in a match against the University of Florida, she suffered a setback when she tore her ACL.
An injury like that can be a difficult rehabilitation, but during her recovery she was sent an art project to keep her busy, a pleasant surprise from a thoughtful incoming recruit who would join the team next season – her former Whitecaps FC REX teammate Mia Pante.
“It was super sweet,” tells Williams.
The pair were close during their time with the ‘Caps, and that familiarity was helpful when Pante was looking to make her own decision on where to attend.
“She has helped me with applications and the apartments, and my mom has been able to talk with her mom,” tells Pante. “To have someone you know already when you live away from home for the first time I think is going to be very valuable.”
“I am so excited to have a fellow Canadian so not all the jokes are about me,” laughed Williams.
On the pitch they formed a dynamic fullback/winger duo in Vancouver. Both were highly sought after during the recruiting process.
Pante comes in this year with an opportunity, as talented Mexican national team defender Jimena Lopez departs. That said, she will compete for playing time against a number of other very strong players in the program, including those in her recruiting class.
“I think that Mia is going to fit in extraordinarily well with the way we play and the way that the Whitecaps are teaching their players to play,” prognosticated Coach G.
While the standards are high, Coach G has every confidence in the ability of both Williams and Pante to contribute to the team.
“It’s a deal where I don’t think they’re going to have any issues with competing, because they’re coming from a competitive atmosphere.”
HOOK ‘EM HORNS
When Emma Regan was recruited to play at the University of Texas prior to her graduation in 2018, she knew that she was going to a big school. She just didn’t realize how big.
“People come to me now in the airport and show me the horns when I'm wearing my Texas gear. I really didn't realize Texas was such a big deal. It’s crazy the reputation the school has. It’s been really amazing to be a part of.”
She was joined in that Class of 2018 by former Whitecaps FC teammate Julia Grosso. Last year, ‘Caps teammate Teni Akindoju from Halifax joined the Longhorns.
This fall, that ‘Caps contingent will grow to four players when current ‘Caps star Holly Ward makes the move down South.
Like Pante, Ward is looking forward to connecting with her fellow ‘Caps.
“I was really close with Teni before she left,” tells Ward. “She was the person that showed me around [campus] on my visit to Texas. Emma has texted me to let me know that she’s there if I need anything. All of the girls have made me feel so welcomed.”
Ward has high ambitions to make it to Canada’s senior women’s national team. That is a feat that has already been accomplished by Grosso, who Ward didn’t have a chance to play with in Vancouver. Grosso has become a regular on the Red & White roster, including the most recent World Cup and now heading into the coming Olympics.
“Julia’s story is really inspiring to me,” noted Ward. “I’m really excited to play with her, and hopefully create a connection on the field.”
Helping Ward reach Canada’s women’s national team is a goal that Grosso would love to help make happen too.
“I’m definitely excited to help her. I just want to be there for the other girls and make them feel comfortable with the team, especially another fellow Canadian.”
Ward joins five recruits from Texas, and two from California. A number of them have been regulars in the United States youth national team pool.
“My coach has made it really clear that there aren’t automatic starting positions. For me, I’m competing against the top tanked players in the U.S. from my age group. My goal is to have an impactful role on the team and I think I can accomplish that, and then to also to play on the U-20s for Canada.”
Ward is not unfamiliar with living across the border. She was born in Vancouver, but grew up in Portland, Oregon until moving back to Vancouver in 2017. That experience has given her a strong understanding and appreciation of her soccer journey.
“It’s different in every state, but here you have this whole program with the Whitecaps, BC Soccer, and Canada Soccer supporting you. I think what our REX program gives players is like nothing else I’ve seen. Coaches are automatically drawn to that, because they get to see so many talented players in one place. When I talked to my old coach in Portland, he was saying that it’s a really smart program and a huge opportunity.”
A NEW RIVALRY
Pante and Ward are good friends.
The Aggies and Longhorns have a long history as rival schools in the state of Texas. However, with A&M now in the SEC and Texas in the Big 12, they may not have a chance to play each other regularly. But if the opportunity does come – as it did not long ago in a sold-out 2019 NCAA tournament match – the pair are very keen to face off.
“Holly and I are hoping that we get to play each other,” said Pante. “Holly is a winger so our coaches put us against each other a lot with club and at the national team.”
“I actually love playing against Mia,” smiled Ward. “It makes for a really good competition and it's just fun because we know how each other plays so well. She knows how I play, so I I can't just keep doing the same things because she'll guess it. So, yeah, I'm excited. I hope I go against her.”
So is Texas going to be burnt orange or maroon?