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When Amanda Cromwell was hired as UCLA’s new women’s soccer coach in April, she wasn’t expected to turn a struggling program into a winner. The Bruins were already winners, having qualified for 16 consecutive NCAA Tournaments during a span that has distinguished them as one of the best programs in the country.

At a school that owns 109 national championships, Cromwell’s expectations were clear from the get-go: win some more championships. The Bruins had been on a title skid of sorts, having relinquished control of the Pac-12 conference to a resurgent Stanford program in recent years. But the real monkey on the Bruins’ back remains on the national stage — the women’s soccer team seems to be the school’s only juggernaut without an NCAA trophy on the shelf.

In her first year at the helm, Cromwell has the Bruins on track to make history. The Annandale native guided her new team to an undefeated conference record that yielded UCLA’s first Pac-12 title since 2008, and now she’s leading them to the NCAA quarterfinals this weekend.

Cromwell’s immediate success didn’t come on the stroke of a magic wand. With a heralded junior class on the rise and one of the country’s best freshman classes in the offing, Cromwell arrived to a program with all the pieces already in place.

“There’s just so much history as far as the winning culture here,” she said. “Expectations are very high here. The school doesn’t get to 109 national championships without having a certain culture. It’s just prevalent here; you can feel it.”

Cromwell, a former All-American midfielder at the University of Virginia, came to UCLA after coaching for 14 years at the University of Central Florida. She guided the Knights to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, four Atlantic Sun tournament championships, four Conference USA regular season titles and the 2012 C-USA tournament title. Her 224 career victories — she also coached two seasons at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County — rank her as one of the top 25 winningest active coaches and one of the top 30 winningest coaches in NCAA history.

Prior to a standout playing career at Virginia, where she captained the 1991 Cavaliers team to the Final Four, Cromwell was a standout three-sport athlete at Annandale High. In addition to playing tennis, she led the Atoms’ soccer team to a state championship in 1986 and was the starting point guard on the basketball team that won states in 1988. Annandale retired her jersey when she graduated and hasn’t produced a state title in either sport since her time there.

Even though her playing experience came at the center midfield position, Cromwell finds herself more drawn to coaching defense these days. Her dedication to the Bruins’ back line has helped them record 13 shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.30 this season. UCLA has outscored its opponents 8-0 in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

“When we break up in practice, I generally take the backs,” Cromwell said. “I take a lot of pride in coaching the back four, getting the shutouts, being organized defensively.”

The Bruins saw a conference-record six players earn First Team All-Pac 12 honors this season, among them midfielder Jenna Richmond, a former Centreville High standout now in her senior year. Richmond has put up five assists and three goals this season, none more important than the one that opened the scoring in the team’s 2-1 overtime win against Stanford on Oct. 10. That goal helped snap a seven-match losing streak against the Cardinal and gave the Bruins the confidence necessary to repeat the feat in a 2-0 victory over Stanford last Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. For the Cardinal, it was a taste of their own medicine, as they had ended UCLA’s season three of the previous four years.

Up next for Cromwell’s crew is Saturday’s quarterfinal against defending national champion North Carolina. Thanks to an unfortunate tournament draw — UCLA (20-1-2) received a No. 2 seed in the 64-team field despite being ranked No. 2 in the country — the Bruins will travel to Chapel Hill for Saturday’s 5 p.m. kickoff. UCLA’s lone loss on the season came at North Carolina on Sept. 6.

If the Bruins advance, they will play the winner of the Virginia/Michigan game in the College Cup on Dec. 6. The top-ranked Cavaliers (23-1) are vying to make their first trip back to the College Cup since 1991, when Cromwell was leading the charge in Charlottesville.

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com