Brains and brawn: Embry-Riddle women’s soccer team excels on, off field

Although Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott is known for its challenging academic degrees, the women’s soccer team is making athletic success a part of the conversation, too. (Photo by Mary Holt/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – It is known for producing an impressive collection of alumni, from rocket scientists, astronauts and highly regarded military figures, including Scott O’Grady, the F-16 pilot whose rescue during the Bosnian War was turned into a movie.

Now Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott is known for something else: its women’s soccer team.

Not only did the Eagles advance to the first round of the NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship, it landed six players on CoSIDA’s District 4 Academic All-District team, an honor that culled athletes from Canada and 16 states ranging from Texas to Hawaii.

It’s an impressive feat for a challenging school offering degrees ranging from aerospace engineering to space physics.

“In the athletic world, you don’t always get to see ‘well-rounded’ in a typical award,” said Katy Hyde, a junior forward for the Eagles and an aerospace engineering student. “The well-rounded side of being able to handle athletics and academics, and then to be rewarded for that is really cool and not something a lot of people get to do.”

Ellie Neal, Lauren Foster and Haley Harris, all with 4.0 grade point averages, earned spots on the academic team, while Hyde, Mackenzie Osther and Haley Matthews were selected for their GPAs, ranging from 3.85 to 3.95.

November marked a particularly momentous success for the team.

The Embry-Riddle women’s soccer team captured its sixth California Pacific Conference championship title in seven seasons. (Photo courtesy of Embry-Riddle Athletics)

The feats began in Riverside, California, where the Eagles dominated California-Merced in the California Pacific Conference Tournament. The 4-0 win allowed the Eagles to advance to the final where they found themselves in a familiar spot – back on top of the Cal Pac.

On Nov. 13 the Eagles beat Marymount California University, 3-1, solidifying Embry-Riddle’s sixth conference championship in seven seasons. Although the Eagles lost in the NAIA’s opening round, they still feel they have much to celebrate after achieving both academic and athletic success.

The university, nestled in Prescott, puts an emphasis on academic excellence from Day One – a quality that made it easy for some members of the team to commit to playing for the Eagles.

For fifth year aerospace engineering masters student and first team all-Cal Pac goalkeeper Osther, Embry-Riddle allows her to build upon her future on and off the field.

“We ended up choosing this university because we knew there was an emphasis placed on academics,” Osther said. “We all knew that there is a life beyond our sport, even though our sport has been a part of our own lives for so long. So, for us, we are building our future as we are playing soccer.”

The conference championship and Academic All-American team announcement both came after the Eagles’ 2020 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Junior defender Matthews, a mechanical engineering student, said the lost season gave the team more motivation than ever.

Related story

“We were just urging and waiting for that moment that we would get the chance to play,” Matthews said. “So we prepared hard, we worked hard as a team. Coming into the season we were so excited from not being able to play that I think it really pushed us forward and gave us the opportunity to be really successful.”

The Eagles finished with a 14-6-1 record and a spot in the final NAIA coaches’ poll.

The Eagles came in at No. 25 and were the Cal Pac’s only ranked team, one of just three ranked programs on the West Coast. Their season officially ending Nov. 18, when Westmont beat Embry-Riddle, 2-1, in the NAIA’s first round.

The Eagles, with a roster stocked with high-achieving scholars, plan to use the offseason wisely.

Sophomore midfielder and former Cal Pac freshman of the year Harris, a global security and intelligence student, said balance is key.

“We are taking time off for what we need,” Harris said. “Whether that be like a full break from soccer or focusing on fitness or technical, this is the time to do whatever feels right so you can regenerate and reignite that passion for next season so we don’t get burnt out.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hannah Bronkema expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Bronkema, who has worked for the College Football Hall of Fame and five MLB teams, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.