‘Play with joy’: Isa Berardo PZ ’20 reflects on soccer career as Sagehens close out season

- A female athlete in an orange uniform kicks a ball.
Isa Berardo PZ ‘20 launches a ball down the field. The lockdown defender was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 2019 SCIAC Tournament on Nov. 9. (Courtesy of Justin Sleppy via Pitzer Office of Communications)

As Isa Berardo PZ ’20 approaches the final stretch of their Sagehen soccer career, they’re reminded by the tattoo on their left forearm — which reads “Play With Joy” in their dad’s handwriting — to enjoy these last games, regardless of the result. 

“Ever since I was a scrappy little 5-year-old first kicking a soccer ball around, before every game he would always just tell me ‘play with joy,’” Berardo said. “Being in big games like this can be stressful and nerve-racking, and so I think it’s so important to just remind yourself to go out there and play with joy, because if you do that, you make it all worth it no matter what.”

The lockdown defender has come a long way since then. Name any Pomona-Pitzer women’s soccer career record for goalkeepers, and you’ll find their name next to the statistic.

Berardo has saved 86 percent of shots that have come their way across four years, amounting to exactly 200 saves so far. They boast a career goals-against-average mark of 0.56, meaning they allow just over half a goal per 60 minutes of playing time.

Last year, they were the stingiest goalkeeper in Division III — with the best save percentage (94.4) and GAA (0.18) in the nation — and allowed just three goals in 19 games.

But the most important statistic is the 59 wins P-P has accumulated in Berardo’s four years, as the Sagehens (19-1-1, 12-1 SCIAC) dominated regular season conference play, won a SCIAC championship and made one deep NCAA tournament run in 2016.

“I think it’s so important to just remind yourself to go out there and play with joy, because if you do that, you make it all worth it no matter what.” — Isa Berardo PZ ’20

This Saturday against UChicago in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, Berardo is hoping for their 60th win, plus revenge against the Maroons, who knocked P-P out of the tournament in the Elite Eight during Berardo’s first year on the team.

“There’s a lot of history between these two teams,” Berardo said. “We played them during our pre-season this year and beat them 1-0 in an incredibly well-fought match, so I think this game is just going to be an excellent show of fantastic soccer and grit.”

This weekend may be Berardo’s last opportunity to compete as a Sagehen, which further raises the stakes for them and the rest of the seniors.

“I’m not ready for it to end, and I know the team isn’t either,” Berardo said. “We have so much left to give, and so this weekend, we are just going to go out there and give it everything we have.”

Counting their impressive start to the NCAA tournament, in which P-P has won its first two games by a combined 7-0, the No. 8 Sagehens boast the highest shutout percentage in DIII at 85.7 percent — or 18 of their 21 games — largely due to Berardo’s dominance in goal. 

“There’s a lot of games where Isa doesn’t have a lot to do — on paper — but they have come up with huge saves, you know, even if it’s just one,” head coach Jennifer Scanlon said. “In all of our big wins, they’ve had to make a big save, and they’ve been ready for it and done their job.”

Both Berardo and Scanlon are quick to note that despite the defensive star’s individual accolades — which include three straight years of All-SCIAC honors and MVP of this year’s SCIAC tournament — Berardo’s success is the result of a team effort.

“We just have a phenomenal defense,” Berardo said. “There’s this mindset when we are defending that if our opponent has the ball, my teammates won’t even let them get a shot off, which of course makes my job really easy.”

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Even beyond Berardo’s impressive defensive stats, their real weapon is their attacking abilities, Scanlon said. 

“They can hit a ball … 30 yards on a rope to the winger up by the midfield,” she said. “You don’t have many goalkeepers — at any level — who can hit the ball like that consistently and jump-start your attack like that.”

Berardo’s play has continued to develop over the course of their career as a Sagehen. A former center midfielder, Berardo began playing goalkeeper only as a high school sophomore when their team’s previous goalie graduated and they volunteered to hop in the goal.

“Going into my freshman year [of college], I kind of just had raw energy and a hunger to keep the ball out of the net, but over my four years here, I’ve had the opportunity of actually learning technique and fine-tuning skill to improve my game tenfold,” Berardo said.

Berardo’s vital role on the field comes from their leadership in addition to their technical ability. 

“My voice is often hoarse after games because I’m constantly yelling, constantly directing my teammates,” Berardo said. “Because I have a view of the whole field, I can see when someone’s open or if they have a man-on, and it’s so important to be communicating that to my team.” 

Scanlon said Berardo’s off-the-field leadership is also “outstanding.”

“Sets the bar, sets the example. … Just really committed to development, but also committed to their teammates becoming the best people and best players they can be,” Scanlon said. “[Isa] find[s] real joy and happiness in other people’s successes as well.”

The Hens will need a tremendous game from Berardo on Saturday in St. Louis, Missouri, if they hope to keep No. 16 Chicago at bay and continue their pursuit of an NCAA title.

“Of course my hope for the season is that we play four more games and earn ourselves the national championship,” Berardo said. “This team is so capable of making it happen.”

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