Amid constant chatter about getting Sacramento soccer teams into the major leagues, California Storm owner and first-team head coach Jamie Levoy is adamant she is exactly where she wants to be. Not everything needs to change right away.
While more money is pouring into the game every year, women’s soccer remains, broadly speaking, an amateur sport. The top-flight NWSL currently has 12 teams, while the semi-pro WPSL, which the Storm plays in, has 135.
Despite their status in a lower-tier league, the Storm are one of the most well-known in the world of women’s soccer. That is because professional leagues have come and gone, and the Storm have remained a steady option.
“Regardless of what their goals (with soccer) are, the Storm is a great opportunity for women to keep playing at a really high level,” Levoy said.
Because of their status, they are able to field a unique mix of players that includes professional soccer players, college athletes and amateur part-timers. They play their games at the Davis Legacy Soccer Club’s fields just off Interstate 80 on the eastern outskirts of Davis.
This weekend, that eclectic mix of players have a chance to win the Storm’s first national championship in 18 years at the WPSL semifinals and championship taking place in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Veteran midfielder Haylee Bettencourt is savoring every moment of this year’s run.
The self-proclaimed “old lady” of the team started playing for the Storm 10 years ago, when she was spotted by previous owner Jerry Zanelli while playing at the University of Pacific. Now, she is a medical doctor in residency.
“I remember back in the day when we didn’t have any substitutions,” Bettencourt said laughing. “We would sometimes just show up at game time, no warmup and jump right in. I distinctly remember playing St. Mary’s one time and still beating them 3-2. We might not be in college anymore, but we still got it, you know?”
But that was then. Since Levoy took over in 2018, she’s worked to modernize the team on and off the field, including implementing more formal practices and coaching.
One key hire has been assistant coach Chris Malenab, who arrived at the Storm this year with over two decades of soccer experience that included coaching in the USL and college.
Levoy has given him the reins on most technical aspects of training and multiple players said his expertise has given them an edge in a near-undefeated season.
“This is a group-first team,” Malenab said. “Everyone accepts their role within the group, even the ones that don’t even get to step on the field on game day. We preach that they are just as important as the person that’s scoring all the goals, because without them, that person wouldn’t be in the position they are without competing every single day in practice.”
Liz Hutchison, 26, is enjoying the Storm’s renaissance. Before she became the team’s captain and starting holding midfielder, she played at UC Irvine for five years.
But when her college career came to a close in 2017, there just were not enough soccer opportunities worthwhile for her to keep playing. So she went back to school and got her master’s degree at UC Davis in viticulture and enology (the science of grape-growing and wine-making; told you this group was eclectic).
“Now, I’m falling in love with the game all over again,” Hutchinson said about rejoining the team in August 2020. “I would say that every person that’s traveling with us this weekend has had some integral impact on our success.”
Bettencourt added that this has been her favorite Storm team.
“The team has only gotten more diverse since I’ve been here,” Bettencourt said. “I am just amazed by all the different things these girls are doing, and now, we have girls coming out of high school who are playing at such a high level. Like imagine where they’re going to be after they finish college.”
IMPACT ON THE WOMEN’S GAME
After the pandemic shuttered the better part of two seasons, Levoy said she is just happy to have the league back and already considers this year a success, regardless of the outcome of their playoff run.
But the gravity of a national championship is not lost on her. The last time the Storm won a national title was in 2004.
“Our players are mostly local, so bringing home a title would just show the kind of talent that’s in this area,” Levoy said. “I think it would really trickle down to the kids too. They get to see these high-level athletes and hear that they’re competing on a national stage.”
“That has a huge impact. Because they can believe that can be them someday. What these women are doing is really important.”
The Storm’s run coincides with a year of momentous strides made in the women’s game worldwide.
Domestically, the U.S. Soccer federation finally approved equal pay for its men’s and women’s teams. Soon after, the top-flight NWSL ratified a new collective bargaining agreement that will raise minimum salaries and standards across the league. There is also a NWSL expansion team (which Levoy is an investor of) set to come to the Bay Area.
Internationally, another World Cup is around the corner, slated to take place in Australia/New Zealand. And the Women’s Euro 2022 is breaking records for attendance and TV viewership.
“Things are getting better, but we need more,” Levoy said. “It’s definitely not where it needs to be yet.”
She hopes that the Storm can continue to be conduit for women to reach higher levels, which is why she’s turned away from pressure to include it in her separate investment in NWSL.
That means players like Bettencourt get to stick around with the Storm.
“This is the third time I’ve said I’m not going to show up,” Bettencourt says jokingly. “But God might think that I need to keep playing or something because somehow he keeps making it happen.”
Last week, her work schedule as a doctor threatened to finally take her away from the Storm.
Then she got a text from Levoy: “Hey, has God intervened yet?”