A player nearly two years removed from competition and wholly unfamiliar with a new position might seem a curious cornerstone on which to build a program's revival. But in a career at Santa Clara marked by both her versatility on the field and the frustrating injuries that have kept her off it, Jordan Angeli's perseverance and leadership have always been constants.
"I'm really pleased for her that she put in all the hard work and overcame a lot of hurdles and obstacles to get herself back out there, including a sixth-year waiver from the NCAA, all these different things," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said of his veteran star. "But in addition to that, which is always a happy story to see someone return from devastating injury, she is such a leader -- she is just in her element when she has a chance to lead."
She is also in her element at Santa Clara. A Colorado native, Angeli fell in love with the California campus at a soccer camp when she was 15 years old and called the eventual scholarship offer a dream come true. It also didn't hurt the sales pitch that during Smith's 23 years in charge, the program has become one of the most recognizable names in women's college soccer.
The dream lived up to expectations when the Broncos, three years removed from winning the national title, reached the College Cup in Angeli's freshman season. Playing wherever needed on a deep team, she started 17 games and totaled two assists and no goals. But before her second season, Smith told Angeli he needed her to play forward. Despite unfamiliarity with the position, she responded with a team-high 12 goals for a group trying to replace the all-field contributions of women's soccer Honda Award winner Leslie Osborne, herself a model of versatility. That effort led to a spot on the United States roster for the 2006 Under-20 World Cup in Russia, a fall tournament that delayed the start of her third college season.
As the timeline and the calendar's current creep toward 2010 suggests, that's about the point at which the dream turned fitful and left both program and player tossing and turning.
Angeli and Santa Clara teammate Amanda Poach, also a member of the Under-20 national team that went to Russia, struggled to match their prior production after returning a month into the college season. Santa Clara won a conference championship but dropped a difficult first-round game against USC in the NCAA tournament. Angeli took Santa Clara's last shot in that game, her last for nearly two years.
A torn ACL in her left knee before the 2007 season knocked her out for the entire fall, and after months of grueling rehab, as she prepared for the 2008 season, the same ligament gave away again. Her second attempt at a senior season was over before it began.
"Honestly, I was very upset; I was really mad," Angeli said of the second tear. "I had done everything right, and I felt like I was going above and beyond all the things I needed to do. At first, I was mad and I probably cried for a couple of days. But then I was just like -- it never occurred to me that I wouldn't play again, you know? I always knew I was going to get back and it was just part of the path I had been chosen to go through.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason. And right when it happened, I was so pissed, and then after I kind of let it set in, I just realized that there's eventually going to be some good that comes out of this. And I can go into this next rehab and this next surgery with this positive attitude that I'm going to get through this and see what's on the other side."
Now, finally, Angeli is back, playing alongside freshmen who were in eighth grade when she played her first game for the Broncos.
Without Angeli and Poach, who also missed the last two seasons with injuries, Santa Clara first stumbled, exiting the NCAA tournament in the first round in 2007, and then collapsed, going 4-12-4 last season and missing the postseason for the first time in two decades.
Now, finally, Angeli is back, playing alongside freshmen who were in eighth grade when she played her first game for the Broncos. (Poach is hoping to come back from a knee injury suffered in the first practice this season.) Angeli has already earned one degree in marketing and is working toward a second in communications. Many of her friends have long since traded dorm rooms and textbooks for leases and job searches. But after putting her present on hold for two years, the future can wait a few more months while she savors the moment.
On the heels of two lost seasons, even the tedium of conditioning has its upside.
"I think I appreciate some things more than other people do," Angeli said with a chuckle. "Like weight training, some people are like, 'Ugh, we have to go to weights.' I feel like all my friends now have graduated that I've played with and they're like, 'Ugh, I'm so jealous of your soccer body; you're always in such good shape.' So I'm like, 'OK, I'm going to take advantage of these weight sessions, get as much out of it because I know my friends wish they were still in school and had a trainer who could train them every day."
Santa Clara's early results, including back-to-back 1-0 losses at Utah and Maryland, have hinted at some of the frustrations of last season. But with Angeli in yet another new role as a central defender this season, the Broncos beat Georgetown 2-1 on Sunday on her overtime goal and have allowed just three goals in five games.
Unlike the recent past, optimism abounds.
"Just with Jordan back and the freshman class and the depth, yeah, we'll be a tough team to play against," Smith said. "We definitely have turned a corner. It's very, very noticeable in our games, in our training sessions. … We've been handcuffed as coaches because we haven't had the depth, we haven't had the talent, we haven't had the leadership to the same degree we now have it. So it allows us to do so much more.
"I mean, we literally are so excited to train our team every day, and I can't say that's been the case in the last couple of years, particularly last year."
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.