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Gagliano's Last Year Will Be Northridge's First : Soccer: Former Monroe High star is granted another year of eligibility and will play for the Matadors, who begin their inaugural season Sept. 2.

August 23, 1995|TRIS WYKES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — The Cal State Northridge women's soccer team scored a major victory Monday, 11 days before the first-year program's opener at Azusa Pacific.

After nearly two months of waiting, standout midfielder Rachel Gagliano was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will play for the Matadors this fall.

Gagliano, 23, played only two previous years of college soccer, one at U.S. International University in San Diego and one at Moorpark College.

However, NCAA rules mandate that athletes have five calender years to complete four years of eligibility in one sport from the time they initially enroll. Gagliano's five years expired this month.

The waiver, granted by a five-member NCAA committee, allows the 1990 Monroe High graduate one final season in which to play for Northridge and significantly strengthens the lineup of Coach Brian Wiesner.

"She'd be worth five wins, minimum," Wiesner said Saturday, when Gagliano's eligibility was still in question. "She has a rocket shot and she's a play-making midfielder, which is the most crucial position on the field. She's the most experienced player we have."

Gagliano is hardly an unknown quantity. After playing on an area boys' club soccer team as a teen-ager, the North Hills native qualified for the U.S. women's soccer Olympic Development Program and participated in national team camps from 1987-89.

Terry Davila, a Northridge men's soccer assistant and a former Reseda boys' coach, remembers her bowling over his players when she started on the boys' team at Monroe from 1988-90.

"She used to just stick guys," Davila said. "It didn't go over too well."

Gagliano, who also suited up for the Vikings' football team as a kicker in 1989, has spent the past five years on life's elevator.

She received a soccer scholarship to U.S. International out of high school and started for the Gulls as a freshman in the fall of 1990.

When the school dropped its athletic program after the 1990-91 academic year, Gagliano returned home and planned to study and play at UC Santa Barbara.

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However, her father suffered three heart attacks in three months in the fall of 1991 and Gagliano remained in the Valley to work and help support her family.

She attended Moorpark in 1992 and '93, playing for the Raiders in '92 and helping them reach the semifinals of the state junior college playoffs.

"After [1993] I couldn't afford a penny to go anywhere," Gagliano said.

She began working full-time again, both as a campus aide at Monroe and as a clerk at a local specialty food store.

At Monroe, Gagliano had an immediate impact. She counseled at-risk students, including expectant mothers and gang members, organized and coached girls' soccer team in its first two years of existence and was an assistant to football Coach Fred Cuccia.

"The players received her really well because she gained their respect as a coach and not as a woman," said Cuccia, who had Gagliano work with the running backs and special teams. "That's what makes Rachel different, she takes charge. She has a machismo image where she gets things done and is not afraid to step forward."

Gagliano jumped at the chance to play a season of Division I soccer for Northridge and was in contact with Wiesner shortly after he arrived on campus late in May.

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Both knew from the start that Gagliano would have to receive a waiver from the NCAA. Her initial request that she be granted an additional year because of her family's financial difficulties in 1991 was denied in late July.

An appeal was quickly filed that emphasized her father's medical condition at that time and Wiesner returned from practice Monday evening to find the good news on his office answering machine.

"I gave a little yell and went to hunt her down before she left for home," Wiesner said. "I think the whole team's excited and there isn't any jealously involved. They know how valuable she is, and I saw a lot of people smiling today."

For Gagliano, Monday's news allows her to stop wondering and start focusing on the season.

"Before we started practicing I didn't know if I wanted to get my hopes up and be let down again," Gagliano said. "But once I saw the energy these girls have I was like, 'Yes, I want to be out here.'

"We're starting this program and we need to be competitive. I want people to say 'Wow, they're strong for a first-year team. Imagine what they'll be like next year.' "

Gagliano will receive enough money from the team's $24,600 scholarship budget to pay for "more than her tuition and books," Wiesner said.

"We want to enable her to get an education," he said. "It's the one thing she's been chasing all this time."

Her skills are unquestioned, her attitude intense and her leadership evident. As the Matadors drill and condition, it is often Gagliano who works the hardest, encourages others and leads the team in cheers after practice.

"I don't think it hit until I got out on the field this morning," Gagliano said Tuesday. "I was touching the ball around and realized I can play. They can't take it away from me."

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