Le’s Comeback Provides Zags Heart, Postseason Spark

Though Gonzaga controlled the contest in a showdown of first-time conference champions Saturday night at Luger Field, it was a three-play sequence initiated by hometown product Chelsea Le that proved to be the difference in a 1-0 result as they advanced to a second round contest against shock first round winner UC Irvine with their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.

Just over five minutes into the match Le received the ball out of the corner at the top point of the box. The approaching defender left a couple yards of space, allowing her to juke past centrally and unleash a well-paced effort that slipped just over the bar and clipped the top netting.

In a similar situation 10 minutes later Le again received the ball – this time just a bit further out – and as she drove to the area the defender, perhaps overcorrecting for the previous opportunity allowed, charged in aggressively and would upend the Gonzaga Prep product. The foul was spotted just inside the right side of the penalty arc, allowing for the brilliant moment from Marissa Garcia. The junior stepped forward and just let loose a rising line-drive that proved too much for Vandal Kira Witte to handle as it ripped through her late-rising fingertips on the way to the back of the net. See the foul and free kick on Twitter [+]

“I practice those in practice,” said Garcia after the match. “We have a lot of good strikers. Giana (Riley) scored three goals at Pepperdine, so I wondered if I should let her take it. But I felt confident in myself, and I was working on it. Once I hit it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is an amazing feeling.’ Obviously, I could not have done it without Chelsea Le and her getting the foul drawn.”

Against Pepperdine in the first-place showdown last weekend Le did the same thing on the left side, setting up a free kick goal for Giana Riley in the 19th minute. That goal put the Zags up two, which proved to be the winner in the 3-1 contest that clinched the program’s first-ever WCC Championship.

How do you get Chelsea to keep doing that was the question after the game. “Chelsea’s got that scissor move that’s so good,” said head coach Chris Watkins. I hadn’t thought of that but her drawing those two fouls made the difference.”

And Le has been a bit of a difference maker down the stretch. In addition to the free kick opportunites she has drawn in consecutive big games, she also converted the game-winning penalty kick in their pivotal 1-0 home win against Santa Clara in another first-place contest two weeks ago that firmly put Gonzaga on the path to claiming the league title.

Not bad for a senior classmen that has seen most of her time at the program over the past few years on the bench with crutches or knee braces as she has rehabbed from a pair of ACL tears.

“It means so much to be able to just play again so it means even more that I am able to help my team win,” Le said of her impact. “Sitting out the past three years makes me extra grateful to step out on the field, and it means so much that I get to play at home in front of my family and friends!”

After a slow return to playing status this summer locally with the Spokane Shadow Women’s First Team – first light training and then just a bit of game action – she returned to the Zags as a starter, working her average time on the pitch from around the hour mark through the first four games, including against potential NCAA third round opponent Nebraska, to playing the full 90 in eight of the last 10 games, tallying just two goals and an assist from her holding midfield role that sees her play a pivotal roles in starting the attacking possession or breaking up opposition play before they are able to transition to the attacking third – often time doing both with a steal and quick distribution.

“We just had our conference awards come out, and we nominated some people for awards that we didnt get… four major awards and we didn’t any of the four,” Watkins said. “We pushed hard for Chelsea; it’s hardest for Chelsea to get any awards… she doesn’t have as many goals as others. Our conference is deep and there is great players everywhere… so sure great players won the awards but its hard to imagine someone more imporant to their team than Chelsea is to us. We score goals, we have great players everywhere, but Chelsea is the heart of this team and she has earned it. I am really proud of her. Local kid too, and her story is fantastic. [The story’s] got another year – she’s been here a while but she’s got another year. We are just over the moon about both how she has developed and created for us over the last two months.”

Another hometown player and former Spokane Sounders club teammate of Chelsea Le nearly spoiled the party for Gonzaga as Margo Schoesler (Mead) launched a line-drive effort in the 73rd minute that missed just wide left. See the shot on Twitter [+]

“I saw that the ball was kinda just gonna land close to me and I knew that if I took a touch there was a chance – cuz the field was pretty slick, the ball was pretty slick – I knew there was a chance my touch could get away so I decided to rip one first-time off the volley,” she said as she started to smile. “Luckily it stayed down and I didn’t embarras myself by skying it way over the top,” she added with a slight laugh. “Just a little bit more inside and it could have been a whole new game.”

It was not a laughing matter to her former teammate… at the time.

“When Margo almost scored, I was like ‘Margo noooooo!'” said Le. “And luckily it went out,” she added with a chuckle. “But Margo is definitely capable of ripping shots like that, so I was scared.”

Chelsea and Margo share a moment pre-game during introductions