When Diana Saenz stepped through the tunnel of the 33,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Montreal for her first glance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a member of the Costa Rica national team, her dream became reality.
Without a single minute of play gone by, a lifetime of work had been validated in this split second just by standing on soccer’s greatest stage.
“It was an amazing experience,” Saenz said. “Being around the best players in the world is always your dream and that’s your mentality when you start to play soccer, to get to the highest level.”
Saenz, a senior defender on the USF women’s soccer team, grew up in Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose. She lived there until 2012, at which point she left her home and family to pursue a career in the sport she loved.
“It’s different because when I was playing soccer (in Costa Rica), I also had to go to work and study, so I had to split my time between the three things,” Saenz said. “It was hard because when you wanted to play soccer, you may have to go to work or study for your test.”
Once at USF, Saenz devoted more focus to her craft. But as her career progressed, time became a rarity. She spent most of last season splitting her time between USF and the national team, sometimes playing multiple games for each in the same weekend.
“We’ve played three 90-minute games in a row where she’s played for (USF), flown to Rhode Island to play for Costa Rica, and then played one of her best games in the third 90-minute game when she came back,” USF coach Denise Schilte-Brown said. “She just has an engine that’s incredible. She can run forever.”
Endurance has never been a problem for Saenz, but when she got to the U.S., her size was.
At 5-foot-1, Saenz was on the smaller end of the spectrum, but her sharp instincts and prowess on the back line allowed her to carve out a role as a lockdown defender.
“In the game of soccer, if you were to chart interceptions, she would probably be one of the top in the nation,” Schilte-Brown said. “Her ability to read service and know her abilities in terms of where to position herself on the field is second to none. You don’t get to be that size unless you’re incredible at that.”
Those skills put Saenz on the national team and gave her the opportunity to play in the World Cup in June. Then, when she got the starting nod in Costa Rica’s first match against Spain, the nerves quickly set in.
“Of course (I was nervous),” Saenz said. “It’s the highest level, you just want to do your best and give the best you can give and give everything for your team.
“It took five to 10 minutes (to settle down). When you get into a game, you need time to just realize that you’re there, and then after two shots, you’re good to go.”
Saenz started in each of Costa Rica’s three group-stage matches and played in two exhibitions against the U.S. in which she had an assist on one of the team’s two goals.
Although she didn’t get as far as she had anticipated, with Costa Rica going 0-1-2 in the group stage, she’s already eyeing her next prize.
“It’s the World Cup,” Saenz said. “I mean, you have to be the best and I think we didn’t get what we wanted, but we got a good first performance and now we want to work hard and make it into the Olympic games.”
* * *
Set for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Olympics would be yet another accomplishment in her career, but first Saenz wants to take care of unfinished business back in Tampa.
The Bulls found themselves spectating most of the NCAA Tournament after their first-round exit last season at the hands of Illinois State. Though they had been defeated, the one positive to come from that loss was Saenz first career goal.
Most of her work is done on the Bulls’ side of the midfield line, but Saenz prides herself on her ability to flip the field and contribute on offense.
“I just want to support the team,” Saenz said. “When we’re going forward my mentality is just, ‘get forward and be an option.’ When we come back, now I’m like ‘OK now you’re on defense, so get back.’”
Saenz played in 17 games for USF last season and finished with 11 shots on goal and one assist.
Off the field, Saenz is a jokester, but once her cleats hit the pitch, her voice quiets and her intensity increases.
“On the field, I’m quiet,” she said. “In the way I perform, with my runs or with my movements , I speak that way rather than be vocal.”
Being back at USF, Saenz said she has learned a lot from “experiencing the best soccer one could experience.” But to Schilte-Brown, nothing has change — and for good reason.
“I don’t know if Diana’s changed that much,” Schilte-Brown said. “Of course she’s grown a little bit in each year, and of course the World Cup experience was phenomenal, but she’s really always been this good.
“She’s been this good for a really long time. She’s been on her national team for a long time and she’s been an impact player since the day she got here.”