Pepp Women To Take the Pitch: ‘Every Day We Get To Play Soccer Is a Win’

Members of the Pepperdine women’s soccer team hit the waves. Pictured, from left: Layla McFarland, Trinity Watson, Devyn Gilfoy, Shelby Little and Isabel Nelson

The Pepperdine Waves women’s soccer team was playing topnotch soccer in September. Members of the squad were well conditioned with their skills at their peak heading into a season that was scheduled to begin in the late fall.  

Waves head coach Tim Ward said the team was sharp.

“The talent level is really high,” he said at the time. “Top to bottom, this might be one of the deepest squads we have ever had at Pepperdine. It is going to be very hard to pick a starting 11 based on talent.” 

Then, like a lot of campaigns in the 2020 sporting world, their season was postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Despite many sports returning, soccer’s fall season was cut due to safety concerns.

With no games to compete in or practices to kick in, members of the 28-player squad suddenly had a lot of free time, outside moments spent doing school work and soccer training away from the team. 

“What do we do with our hands now that there is no soccer to play?” senior forward Devyn Gilfoy said was the question on a lot of the soccer players’ minds. 

The answer was surfing waves for some Waves, attempting to develop a green thumb for another and another added something new to her workout regimen. Pepperdine players picked up a variety of hobbies during the months their sport was on hiatus. 

The team is in its second week preparing for a delayed season set to begin with a Feb. 20 matchup at West Coast Conference-foe Santa Clara. Even though the season is kicking off nearly 15 months after their 2019 season ended in the first round of the NCAA Championships, Waves players don’t seem to be viewing their time away from their team and sport with downtrodden eyes. 

Ward said the mostly a soccerless fall and winter was much needed sabbatical for him after striking through almost three decades in the sport. 

“There is a quote I recently heard: ‘I’m tired in the work, but not tired of the work,’” he said. “I absolutely love my job, but I didn’t realize the toll of almost 27 years nonstop—the fall season, then recruiting, then the spring season, then summer camp—had. I’m not much a vacationer. This quarantine has been brilliant for me personally; a recharge.”

Ward dropped some pounds, spent time with his family and surfed up a tidal wave. 

“I’ve always made excuses for why I can’t go surfing,” said the coach, a surfer since middle school. “But now, my board is in my car right now—I’ve been surfing three times this week. It’s so therapeutic for me. I’ve never had a bad day of surfing.” 

Sophomore midfielder and forward Shelby Little, affectionately called the Barefoot Queen by teammates because of her propensity to have shoes absent from her feet, taught Gilfoy and a few other teammates how to surf. 

“She took a few of us out there and showed us the ropes,” said Gilfoy, now a longboard surfer. “We would go almost every weekend. It was a safe, but fun form of team bonding.” 

Junior defender Isabel “Izzy” Nelson, a Texas native, spent most of her time away from the soccer field in the Lone Star State. The All-WCC second team honoree in 2019 did Pilates at most three times a week. 

“It’s a fun body workout,” Nelson said. “It works different muscles, little muscles you don’t work during a big life. It helps with balance and agility.” 

Senior midfielder and forward Joelle Anderson, selected by the Houston Dash in last week’s National Women’s Soccer League Draft, tried gardening, but it didn’t take. She did find success in making a certain pastry dish. 

“I’m really good at baking pies,” said Anderson, a three-time All-WCC selection. 

The squad did come together over Zoom calls during the soccer hiatus. The video chats featured mental health professionals, past Waves and others talking with the team. One call held in the wake of the social justice movement sparked last summer featured former Waves that are Black including Lynn Williams, a 2014 graduate, who is NWSL champion and member for the USA women’s national team.

“Those conversations are invaluable for our team culture,” Ward said. “Every alumnus who jumped on spoke to the benefits of being a Pepperdine soccer woman and how the lessons they learned they carry with them in their business lives and family lives.” 

Pepperdine’s 2020 spring season—a series of practices and scrimmages—and its annual banquet to honor seniors was canceled because of the coronavirus’ spread. Ward hoped to have the banquet in the fall, but it, like the 2020 fall season, didn’t happen. He praised his team’s attitude throughout worldwide health emergency. 

“The girls have navigated the waters beautifully, but they have been rough waters and difficult,” he said. “We are so proud of these girls.” 

Nelson viewed the soccer delay as part of an extended summer. 

“Everyone got to spend more time at home and more time with their families than they had in a long time, which was nice,” she said.

Pepperdine finished the 2019 season with an 11-6-3 record. The squad qualified for the NCAA tournament for the 11th time where they were defeated by Texas Tech on penalty kicks in the opening round. 

The Waves practiced in small groups when they initially returned to campus in January, and at press time most of the team was training together. Ward said most of the players look fit, but because the team couldn’t do offseason training together, he and his coaching staff are directing practices at a steadier pace before ramping activities up. 

Gilfoy said the first big practice was full of giggles, but competitive. 

“It was really fun to be out there,” she said. “I think everyone is grateful to have time on the field. The energy is so high right now.” 

The bunch will scrimmage LMU on Jan. 29 and has matchups against UCLA and USC planned. After the Santa Clara contest, Pepperdine has eight more WCC contests scheduled. 

Gilfoy said the Waves realize that no game is guaranteed because of the coronavirus. 

“We are grateful for every opportunity we get,” she said. “We are just taking it day by day, trying to get one percent better every time we step on the field.”

Anderson said Pepperdine will have to be malleable this year but believes the Waves’ talent level will help with that.

“It’s one of the best teams I have played with,” she said. “We have so much talent. The freshmen we have coming in are amazing. They add a lot to our team. This team is going to be really special and hopefully we can do something very special this season.” 

Nelson is excited about what the team can do. 

“I’ve yet to win a WCC Championship, so I would like for us to be able to do that,” she said. 

Of course, Ward said the team has goals and an aim to continue the successful Pepperdine soccer tradition, but also: “Every day we get to play soccer is a win.”