Malia Berkely remembers the excitement she felt as a junior at Badin High School in 2014 when the Florida State University women’s soccer team she had committed to won its first national championship.
When she arrived in Tallahassee as a college freshman two years later, it was just a hope that she could be a part of the program’s second title.
On Sunday, that dream came true. Berkely, a redshirt sophomore defender, played all 90 minutes to help the Seminoles to a 1-0 win over North Carolina in the NCAA College Cup final at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
“I was definitely fan-girling for them from afar when they won in 2014, so to actually be a part of it now is amazing,” Berkely said in a phone interview Monday night. “My first thought here when I was a freshman was, ‘I hope we can win a national championship,’ and now it’s a reality. It’s an awesome feeling.”
»LOOKING BACK: Badin’s Berkely wins top honor — again
Florida State (20-4-3) got the go-ahead goal in the 60th minute and had to clamp down on defense to maintain the lead.
The Tar Heels had four shots over the final 25 minutes, but put only one on target. UNC’s best opportunity came in the 88th minute after a shot deflected behind the goal line for a corner kick, which the Seminoles managed to clear.
Berkely, as a center back, played a crucial role in preserving the shutout.
“Throughout the game, I was just thinking, ‘No matter what this is our last game, so I just need to give it my all,’ and we were holding them pretty well but it was still a tight game throughout,” Berkely said. “As soon as the whistle blew, I felt immediate relief and then excitement when my teammates ran out. It was like a mini flashback to winning state, but obviously this is much bigger than that.”
A four-time all-state selection in high school, the Liberty Township resident was a part of two state titles with Badin in 2013 and 2014 and now adds to a collection of achievements. She was the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year and a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) All-American in 2014 and 2015 in addition to being a three-time Greater Catholic Co-Ed League and Division III Player of the Year in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Berkely had made an immediate impact at Florida State as well, starting all 22 games as a freshman at outside back and helping the Seminoles to 15 shutouts. She was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team and was a TopDrawerSoccer Best XI Freshman second team pick.
However, after tearing her ACL during the 2017 preseason, Berkely ended up missing an entire season and had to take a redshirt her sophomore year. She didn’t seem to miss a beat when she returned to the field this year and was one of five Seminoles to play every game.
“It was definitely really hard because I basically had to re-learn how to walk and do everything all over again, but having the support of my family and teammates and coaching staff and trainers, the entire support system of Florida State, really helped me get to where I am now,” Berkely said.
Berkely said she used the time on the sidelines last year to gain a better understanding of her teammates and the role of each position so when she got back on the field she had a greater knowledge.
That helped when Florida State went to Europe at the end of May and needed a center back. Berkely, who played offense in high school and outside back with the youth national team program, seemed a good fit with senior Natalia Kuikka, and that became her new role. She finished the season with one goal and seven assists.
“I actually enjoyed it a lot,” Berkely said. “I like seeing a lot of the field and being able to evaluate and use my feet to bring it forward.”
Florida State went on to win its fifth ACC Championship in six years and then had to go through No. 20 South Florida, No. 6 Southern California and No. 14 Penn State to earn a spot in the program’s 10th College Cup.
The Seminoles beat No. 1 and defending national champion Stanford on Friday to set up their title-game clash with UNC, a program that has won 21 of a possible 37 NCAA women’s soccer titles. Berkely’s entire family was there for the final two games, including some cousins, an aunt and some close family friends.
“We were so focused every game,” said Berkely, who scored her first and only goal of the season in the semifinal win over Stanford. “With Badin we stressed how much we were a family, and I can say the same thing here. People don’t realize the impact that has. Being a family got us to the national championship and being a family won it for us.”
The Seminoles arrived back in their locker room on Monday to find the softball team had decorated it for them. They then celebrated the title with the rest of the school Monday night with speeches from the university president, athletic director and head coach Mark Krikorian.
“Everyone was really excited for us,” Berkely said. “Professors were emailing us congratulations, people were clapping for us when we walked into classes. The whole atmosphere was incredible.”