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UCLA coach Margueritte Aozasa feeling ‘every emotion’ ahead of Stanford homecoming

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She lives near the beach, but the tranquil environment isn’t enough to help Margueritte Aozasa unwind. That’s the burden of a coach.

“Way more sleepless nights as a head coach,” UCLA‘s first-year leader joked last month.

After seven years as a Stanford assistant, Aozasa has made a dream transition into her first head coaching position, leading UCLA to a program-best 13-0 start and the top ranking in the country. The Bruins (5-0 Pac-12) travel to No. 9 Stanford on Friday in a key conference matchup that is also an emotional homecoming for Aozasa, who was an assistant at Stanford for seven years.

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The Bay Area native said she’s feeling “every emotion I can imagine.” There’s pride in returning to her old Palo Alto stomping grounds, gratitude for the school where she honed her coaching chops and excitement to see mentors and old friends. There’s also melancholy: The theme of the match is to raise mental health awareness in honor of former Stanford and Newbury Park goalie Katie Meyer, a player Aozasa had coached who died by suicide in March.

While helping the Cardinal to two national championships, Aozasa learned from Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe how to break down the game and teach it in its simplest form. In moving to UCLA, Aozasa wanted to borrow Stanford’s thoughtful decision-making and structure, but wanted to give her players freedom.

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The result is a fluid playing style that has worked to perfection.

The Bruins are the only NCAA Division I team without a loss or a tie, overcoming a difficult schedule that included top-10 road wins at Duke and North Carolina. They have three consecutive shutout victories and lead the Pac-12 in scoring with 3.08 goals per game.

The players are “in a groove where they’re playing with a lot of confidence, they’re playing with a lot of composure, but that comes from their willingness to work hard for each other,” Aozasa said. “It’s just having that foundation, that trust between players.”

Players, leery about the coaching change, did not blindly trust the new staff when it entered in January. The staff even told the players they would have to earn the team’s trust. Aozasa prioritized relationship building and creating a space for players to get to know each other outside of soccer. They did light-hearted activities like building towers out of marshmallows and straws and sat down for team bonding conversations that midfielder MacKenzee Vance said never occurred under the previous staff.

Vance pinpointed an exercise in which players and staff identified themselves as animals based on how they handle conflicts. Lions are loud and verbal. Rabbits scurry away. Porcupines are prickly. Turtles retreat into their shells.

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“That has given us language to kind of use around conflict, which has been really nice to help build relationships, build trust,” said Aozasa, who identifies as an owl that approaches conflicts intellectually.

By spring quarter, players were ready to buy into Aozasa’s vision for the program.

“They’re just such good people. Down to earth people,” Vance said last month. “I feel like that’s what we need here at this program. Somebody who is going to take control, show us love, family and still expect us to grind and be 100% every single time on the field and that’s what they demand every day.”

The standard is so high for the Bruins that even a 1-0 shutout against Arizona on Sunday was characterized as “just a poor performance all the way around,” Aozasa said. A game-winning goal from Sunshine Fontes in the 83rd minute preserved the perfect start, but the coach was preoccupied by the lack of discipline the team showed by letting up on key habits. The Bruins need a better performance at Stanford (11-2-1, 4-1-0) , where the Cardinal are 7-0 and outscoring opponents 25-4.

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