Ifeoma Onumonu never imagined she would be a Bear.
Cal women’s soccer coach Neil McGuire had a different vision.
With a consistently successful program under his direction, McGuire generally had his pick of some of the nation’s top players when recruiting.
He was at a major recruiting event when the strong, speedy Onumonu caught his eye.
“She was hard to miss because of the things she does on the soccer field,” says McGuire.
But the high school junior’s attention was more focused on schools like Stanford, Washington and USC than on Cal. She visited the other campuses and met with the coaches with the aim of choosing one of those programs for the next stage of her career.
Yet she found disappointment wherever she traveled, as each of her prospective schools failed to live up to her expectations. The campuses did not feel like home, and when she talked to the coaches, they were not the right fit. These letdowns influenced her to finally open her mind to other schools — schools like Cal.
After struggling to feel secure with the other coaches, Onumonu finally found what seemed like a perfect fit in McGuire. Onumonu committed to Cal in the summer after her junior year of high school, having never seen the campus or met the team.
Something about simply speaking with McGuire over the phone gave Onumonu a greater sense of security and optimism than did any of her in-person visits with the other schools.
“When I talked to Neil, he made me feel a lot better,” says Onumonu. “He was nice and supportive and he gave me courage.”
The teenager staked her entire future on a gut instinct, a feeling that the coach on the other end of the line was somehow the perfect match for her.
McGuire won a power forward with immense athleticism and an eagerness to learn in the bargain. Onumonu stands at 5-foot-10 and is a unique blend of quickness, agility and muscle. The forward can overpower defenders with her strength, beat them with her footwork and burn them with her speed.
Yet despite her clear physical advantages, Onumonu has often struggled with her own confidence.
In high school, her athletic gifts would get her past opponents, but her insecurity would prevent her from finishing the job. She prefers scenarios in which she is swarmed by defenders in front of the net than being alone before an open goal — then, at least she has an excuse if she misses.
She thrives on a greater physical presence because it relieves the emotional pressure of her own self-doubt.
Since coming to Cal, she feels more like a goal scorer than simply a player who creates offensive opportunities.
“I’ve been known for getting there but not scoring, but now I am getting there and putting it in,” says Onumonu.
She credits working with McGuire for that change. He has helped her gain better ball control and taught her how to find the net when she is in a position to score.
But beyond the technical improvements, he has helped her to establish faith in her own abilities. His confidence in her has helped her to believe more in herself.
“It surprises me how much confidence the coaches have in me,” says Onumonu. “They probably see something in me that can bring something to the team that was missing in past years.”
It is no longer just the coaches who see Onumonu’s promise. Onumonu has skyrocketed into the elite ranks of collegiate soccer and drawn attention on the national stage.
She scored the first goal of her Cal career in the second game of the season and has lit up the scoreboard since.
As a freshman on a squad that features scorers like seniors Betsy Hassett and Lauren Battung, Onumonu has five more goals than the next-leading scorer on the team. With one game left before postseason play, she has already matched the top scorer from last year’s squad, Katie Benz.
“Ifeoma’s athletic ability and her ability to get into dangerous spaces on the field is something that is hard to find, and she is a natural goal scorer, which is equally hard to find,” says McGuire.
McGuire always knew he had a burgeoning talent, but he did not anticipate Onumonu’s instant rise to stardom. He expected her to eventually find this level of success, but it is rare for someone so young to adjust so quickly to the collegiate pace and rise to the upper echelons of Division-I soccer. Her 11 goals thus far rank as second highest in the Pac-12, only one behind UCLA senior Zakiya Bywaters.
“She has proved to be very difficult to mark and very elusive,” says McGuire. “We found that most teams don’t have the speed to keep up with her. And obviously her composure in front of goal is a huge asset.”
While Onumonu’s success did not shock her coach, her new role as the Bears’ offensive point-person has rattled her. Though her dominant demeanor on the field reveals nothing of these internal doubts, she continues to struggle with her own confidence in spite of her success in front of the goal.
“People depending on me scares me,” says Onumonu. “It feels good to be a part of the team and making my mark, but anytime I enter the field I feel like I have to score, and if I don’t score I’m letting someone down.”
Onumonu is learning to manage her insecurity and she is building her self-confidence, but it is an ongoing process. She has figured out how to put her doubts behind her while playing, and that breakthrough has morphed her into one of the fiercest players on the pitch.
She is constantly darting after long passes and muscling her way around defenders in order to create goal-scoring opportunities. She leads the Bears in both shots and assists and is the most dominant offensive presence in the Bears’ arsenal.
“She’s really laid back off the field, and she has a big smile and a fun personality,” says McGuire. “On the field between the lines, she really is a warrior and she works tirelessly for her teammates, willing to put her body in harm’s way in order to get a goal.”
Much of her personal development traces back to the strong mutual respect between Onumonu and her coach. McGuire is a coach she trusts and who inspires confidence in her, and she is a caring player with great instincts and a desire to learn.
Despite the freshman’s early success, McGuire does not believe Onumonu has reached her full potential.
He plans to spend the next three and a half years helping her get there.
Taylor Brink covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]
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