In 2011, Chioma Ubogagu arrived at Stanford and immediately sparked the Cardinal to its’ first NCAA women’s soccer championship.
Three years later, she is poised to lead the Cardinal to another one. Ubogagu is the most dynamic player on a Stanford team that is 6-0-1, ranked No. 4 and has beaten five ranked teams. It’s also the only squad in the country that hasn’t conceded a goal.
The 5-foot-6 senior forward is playing with an energy and imagination that is unique in college soccer. Her cutting and change of direction are swift and sudden, her skills nearly unparalleled. Put them together and you get a player who can rifle through a defense and set up herself and others for an open shot.
What’s different is that Ubogagu is fully healthy and fully energized, in contrast to the previous two seasons when injuries and a long run to the 2012 FIFA Under-20 World Cup title took their toll mentally and physically.
Now a captain alongside fellow seniors Alex Doll and Lo’eau LaBonta, Ubogagu has taken ownership of the team, following in the footsteps of such recent Cardinal luminaries as Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press and Teresa Noyola — all Hermann Trophy winners. She already has scored winners against two of the biggest programs in women’s soccer, North Carolina (in overtime) and Portland, both in 1-0 victories on the road.
“More than anything, she’s always been a talented player,” Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “But this year, her leadership of the entire team has been incredible. She’s really been a leader by example, vocally, and off the field. She’s creating a good atmosphere for the whole squad.”
Through seven matches, Ubogagu has three goals and one assist. But more importantly, her play seems pivotal to Stanford’s fortunes.
“It’s my senior year, I have one last shot at trying to get a national championship with this team,” she said. “I try to attack every game with that mindset. I want to do as much as I can.”
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“I still loved the game, and that’s all I wanted to do”
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Ubogagu scored 10 goals and had 10 assists as a freshman, but totaled seven goals over the past two seasons. She doesn’t have a big-time offensive threat like 20-goal scorer Lindsay Taylor joining her on the front line, like she had as a freshman. This year, Ubogagu is the focus both for her team and for opposing defenses.
She’s an outstanding creator, and the threat of the pass gives the defense twice as much to be concerned about.
Creativity, after all, is what Ubogagu is all about. Her soccer origins trace back to her grandfather, Austin Eneuke, who played for the Nigerian national team and England’s Tottenham Hotspurs. Chioma’s parents moved from Nigeria to London for job opportunities, and that’s where Chioma was born. In the language of the Igbo people, “Chioma” means, “in God’s presence.” Her background has given her the choice to represent Nigeria or England in international play, as well as the U.S.
When Chioma was 3, her parents filed for divorce and Chioma along with her older brothers, Oggy and Okwus, moved to Texas where her mother, Tina, had a friend with a lead on a nursing job.
“My brothers played for their schools when we were in London,” Chioma said. “I always wanted to do what they did. And, when I came to the States, I still wanted to do what they did, except they got carried away with this thing called football [not futbol]. I still loved the game, and that’s all I wanted to do.
“I never played with dolls,” she said. “I literally copied my brothers on anything. My mom loved it because she wouldn’t have to worry about me. I would just be out of the house chasing them.”
One thing that’s also important to know about Chioma, is that she’s a fan of Arsenal, the London rival of her grandfather’s Hotspurs. Not just a fan, but a fanatic.
Her fandom began as many team allegiances do, as a childhood choice that defies logic. As Chioma’s father watched the Tottenham-Arsenal derby on TV one day, he commanded Okwus to “cheer for the team in white.” Naturally, Okwus chose the team in red: Arsenal. Chioma followed suit.
When the Stanford team had “jersey day” at practice, Chioma brought five Arsenal jerseys for her teammates to wear.
“Gunners for life,” she says emphatically.
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“Without him, there’s no way my soccer would have gone the way it has”
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In Copell, Texas, a suburb just north of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Ubogagu dominated area rec leagues. She appeared destined to step up to a more competitive level. However, Tina, a neonatal intensive care nurse raising three children as a single mom, did not have the understanding of local soccer hierarchy and didn’t necessarily have the time to find out.
David Hansen, whose daughter played on a team led by Ubogagu, recognized Ubogagu’s ability and was aware of the danger that she might not be given the opportunity to fulfill her potential.
Without prompting, he got the family’s phone number and reached out to Tina, to convince her that he should take Chioma, along with his daughter, to a select club tryout. Tina had no idea who he was and ignored the message. However, Hansen was persistent, and after several months, finally reached her.
Your daughter’s really good, he told her. She needs this opportunity. We can carpool, we can figure it out.
Tina agreed and Chioma not only made the club, the D’Feeters, but would lead it to two Texas-North State Cup titles, a U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region II championship and a 2010 third-place U-17 national finish.
“Without him, there’s no way my soccer would have gone the way it has,” Ubogagu said.
With the D’Feeters, she came under the coaching of Skip Scarfone, who would become one of the biggest influences of her playing career.
“For the first hour or more, it would be strictly skills,” she said. “He was one of the best known in the area for sharpening young girls to get comfortable on the ball. That was really a big part of why I like doing the things I like to do now.”
At Coppell High, Ubogagu led the Cowgirls to the 2009 Texas 5A state title, the school’s first, and was a four-year first-team All-Area selection by the Dallas Morning News, all while maintaining a weighted GPA of 4.975.
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“We could see the potential, but we weren’t quite there yet”
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Ubogagu arrived at Stanford considering a career in medicine, and while still on a pre-med tract, she is majoring in film and media studies. Last winter, she landed an internship at DreamWorks Animation, the film production company that produced Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon.
Ubogagu is interested in animation or live action film editing. At Stanford, she has produced a series of video promos for the team that are funny and clever, and seems to be always conferring with her teammates to come up with new ideas.
— Chioma Ubogagu (@ChiAlreadyKnow) September 3, 2014
On the field, her energy, speed and unique abilities immediately bolstered a Stanford team that had failed to win in three consecutive trips to the NCAA College Cup final, and to its first national championship. She was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and was a College Cup all-tournament selection.
Ubogagu never lost a match playing for Stanford until the end of her sophomore season, a 1-0 double-overtime crusher to eventual champion North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals. As a junior, however, Stanford suffered uncharacteristic losses. Snapped were the Cardinal’s 73-match home unbeaten streak, 44-match conference winning streak and a 26-match regular-season unbeaten streak.
Stanford finished 15-6-1 with a young team, though it reached the Sweet 16 for the eighth consecutive season. Now, it seems 2013 was the foundation for a stronger 2014.
“We could see the potential, but we weren’t quite there yet,” Ubogagu said. “We were just trying to figure it out at that point.
“Even this year, looking back at the first game against North Carolina and now, the chemistry is a lot better. We can still improve, but right now, we already look very much like a team that’s ready for Pac-12 play.”
Ratcliffe likes what he sees from Ubogagu, calling her “the catalyst,” and admires the way she’s creating chances.
For Ubogagu, it’s just part of her game, and Stanford is enjoying the benefits. It’s led to one national championship. But for Ubogagu and her teammates, one isn’t enough.