The three women sitting across from me all have the look of athletes. They also have the look of college students. Of course, the fact that all three are sitting in the Cal State University Northridge athletic office wearing large-lettered “CSUN Student-Athlete” shirts might be pretty good clues.
Destinney Duron, Cynthia Sanchez and Cynthia Tafoya are at different stages of college life. Duran, 19, is a sophomore. Sanchez, 20 is a junior. Tafoya, 22, will finish her undergraduate degree work in English this fall, and receive her bachelor’s degree next spring. But they have more in common than just being three young women getting ready to soon move on to adult life.
They are key members of the CSUN women’s soccer team that is off to a 6-2 start. The Matadors are currently second in the Big West Conference standings; they have the same total of wins as Cal State Fullerton, but Fullerton has one less defeat.
Sanchez, a forward, leads the team in scoring ( and is second in the Big West) with six goals and 13 points. Tafoya is among the conference top 10 in wins, saves, save percentage and goals against. Duron, a midfielder-slash-defender, has moved into the starting lineup and impressed with her speed, strength and stick-to-itiveness.
They arrived at this point in their careers and lives by dissimilar methods, but do not tell uncommon stories.
Originally from Burbank, Duron had an excellent career at Hart High School in Newhall, playing four years and earning all-league and All-CIF honors. When it came time for college, Northridge had a bit of an inside edge.
“It was close to home,” Duron said. “I also considered San Diego, but I wanted to stay very close.”
Sanchez is from Gilroy in Santa Clara County — “The garlic capital of the world,” she notes proudly — and is on the smallish side at 5-feet-2. When she tore an anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee as a high school senior, colleges that were interested in her suddenly lost interest.
But not CSUN.
“[Coach] Keith West called and said ‘don’t worry, we still want you. Get better and come here,’” Sanchez said. “It wasn’t that they were the only choice; but he made the effort to call me and tell me that he still wanted me. That really helped.”
Tafoya is from North Hollywood and went to Notre Dame High School. She was a redshirt her freshman year, and has worked her way up to being a starter. She’s never wanted to play anywhere else but goalkeeper.
“I first started at 9,” she said. “Everyone would stare at [goalkeepers] because they were working the hardest. And that was exciting to me. I saw them diving around around and I knew I wanted to do that.”
West, now in his 10th season as the CSUN woman’s soccer coach, describes the trio as the type of players he actively recruits to Northridge.
“I look a for kid who wants to get better, just catching their stride on their upside. Or else they have something you can’t teach,” West said. “When they come here, the expectation is they will improve. If they don’t have that, they won’t make it here.”
He knew Sanchez could be special — “a kid I knew could make a difference in the program” — and said she is rewarding that faith this season. “This year the goals have started coming. With some kids [great success happens] right away and for other kids it takes some time. But she is showing she has what it takes to be a goal-scorer. She is technical, fast and quick, with great desire and a competitive spirit. And she is very humble, appreciative of the team.”
Duron’s emerge as an all-around player could happen as the season goes on, West said. “She’s big, strong, great in the air, strikes the ball well, is technically sound, and has speed. She’s got the package. She can throw the ball 40 yards down field. She has a very high IQ for the game; all three do.”
It’s Tafoya’s development into a top-tier college goalkeeper that has West especially proud. “Her first couple of years she wasn’t as fit as she needed to be to dominate that part of the field. Now she’s like a cat, the way she moves around the goal. Cynthia’s also a great human being. But in goal you can’t be the nicest person. I think she has realized she can’t be nice in goal. That, and the belief she can make the plays in games I see her make in practice.”
Northridge has been playing Division I women’s soccer since 1995, but has only gone to the NCAA Tournament once — in 2012, the same year the Matadors won the Big West Tournament. There’s a similar blend on that team and the 2015 team. The 2012 team had nine seniors and five juniors. This team has five seniors and eight juniors. In both instances, the players liked each other and were fixated on team goals — as in winning a championship — rather than individual ones.
That’s why Tafoya is not surprised by the 6-2 start, and the early five-game winning streak of CSUN.
“I knew it would be like this since last year,” she said. “I could see the freshman and sophomores wanted to work hard. And between our summer breaks and other breaks, we’ve all been working hard individually. So I knew it would be like this when we came in [the fall].”
The others agree.
“Usually we’ve had a problem with finding leaders on our team. But this year I feel we’re all leaders,” Sanchez said. “We all want to have a part of the leadership. In [Sunday’s 1-0 road win against Portland] we’re all yelling at each other, telling each other what to do. But … we knew where it was coming from, a good place in the heart. We’re all confident in our roles and we want to help us get better.”
Adds Duron, “Everyone is more mature. You can tell that this year everyone wants it. And we have a pretty good squad this year so I’m sure we’re going to [win].”
Again, it’s only September, with 12 more regular season games to play, followed by the Big West Tournament, which determines the conference’s representative in the NCAA. But these Matadors are fairly bursting with confidence. And the formula to keep the confidence level high is a simple one, Tafoya said.
“Belief, for sure. And discipline,” she said. “Those are the two top things we’ll need.”