(WTNH)–It’s an unlikely place for a soccer dynasty; a beautiful campus nestled along Seaside Park in Bridgeport, a goal kick away from the Long Island Sound.
Here, the University of Bridgeport women’s soccer team has emerged as a national Division II power. They’re looking to make their eighth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, where the’ve advanced to the Sweet 16 twice since 2007. For six weeks in 2011, UB was the No. 1 team in the nation.
This year, the Purple Knights are 15-1, and ranked fourth in the country. They’ve outscored opponents 38-6 on the season, and have already recorded 12 shutouts. In fact, as freshman standout Jess Laszlo said, one of their goals is to not allow another score for the rest of the season.
So how did this unlikely dynasty come to exist?
“It took a long time to get where we are,” said Magnus Nilerud, a native of Sweden who starred on the UB men’s soccer team in the late ’90s and is now in his 17th season as women’s head coach.
“But now that we’re here, it’s kind of a given. This is who we are, and this is what we do. We compete for regional titles and national championships.”
Nilerud broke the school record for wins in his fourth season despite going winless in year one. He recorded his 100th victory as a head coach in just nine seasons–and has climbed his way to the Top 25 in the nation in wins among active coaches.
His roster includes local stars from Shelton, West Haven, Darien and Danbury, but also players from Sweden, Germany, Norway, England, Brazil and the Netherlands.
Nilerud says his international connections have helped him find players, and that with his program’s success, local stars have considered UB as an option instead of the other Division 1 schools in the state.
“We’re competing with schools and athletic programs that are a step above us,” he said.
One of those schools is UConn–which offered freshman sensation Jess Laszlo before she ended up at Bridgeport.
The Stamford native was the all-time leading scorer at Westhill High School. Now, she’s tied for the conference lead with 16 goals.
“I always have big expectations for myself,” Laszlo said. “One of my goals was to come in and lead the team in scoring.”
“She’s extremely talented, and very, very athletic, and she’s got a little bit of that attitude that you rarely see in the female soccer player,” Nilerud said.
“She always thinks that she’s better than the players she’s playing against.”
With a prodigious goal scorer like Laszlo, and a defense that has allowed just 0.3 goals per game this season in front of freshman goalie Jennifer Wendelius of Sweden, the school’s first-ever national championship feels within reach.
So, how far can they advance?
“They can go as far as they want,” Nilerud said. “They need to keep their feet on the ground and stay humble, and do what they do best, which is work hard.”
“We’ve caught a bit of momentum, and that can carry you a long way.”