In this time of giving thanks, UCF’s women’s soccer team is most thankful for the incredible stroke of fate that led it to fiery goalkeeper Aline Reis. Without that true blessing, the Knights likely wouldn’t still be alive now and enjoying one of the finest seasons in school history.

The year was 2006 and UCF associate head coach/recruiting coordinator Colby Hale was scouring the soccer-mad country of Brazil for talent that could potentially play for the Knights. While scouting the Guarani Football Club, a travel team that had already produced two-time all-conference pick Roberta Pelarigo at UCF, Hale’s attention fixated on a 5-foot-3 spitfire of a goalkeeper who showed little regard for her body by diving around to make saves while also barking out orders to teammates.

As it turns out, the goalkeeper wasn’t even a part of the team based in Campinas, Brazil, a landlocked city six hours to the west of Rio de Janeiro. And after further detection Hale realized it was a minor miracle that the keeper, which turned out to be Reis, of course, just so happened to be there for practice that day.

“It was just something meant to be, I guess,” Reis said, shaking her head as if the moment were just yesterday. “I had actually stopped playing soccer because in Brazil you don’t have sports in college. You have intramurals, but nothing like (college athletics). I was going to stop playing soccer and just focus on my education. But one day, after four months of not playing or training, I called my coach and told him, `I really miss soccer. Can I just stop by for practice? See the girls and have some fun?”’

That whim turned out to be a stroke of amazing luck for UCF, the program that Reis has now led to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Championships. UCF (13-4-6) stunned Florida and perennial national champion North Carolina last weekend in Gainesville and now plays No. 1-seeded Wake Forest on Friday in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The winner advances to the College Cup Final Four next week in Kennesaw, Ga.

UCF is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1987. A young team with just three seniors – Stacie Hubbard and Katie Jackson are the others – UCF undoubtedly wouldn’t be here now without Reis, the unquestioned emotional senior leader of the squad. She made a tremendous stop in the second overtime against North Carolina and her diving grab on a penalty kick to seal the victory has already become legend in the UCF soccer community.

UCF head coach Amanda Cromwell, the architect of UCF’s dominant program over the past 13 seasons, raves about Reis’ heart and grit when the diminutive goalkeeper’s name is brought up. Cromwell said she’s hoping to turn the picture of a diving Reis into a poster for her office someday.

“That picture is amazing,” Cromwell said. “(Legendary North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance’s) last quote in the press conference was that not only did Aline save that last kick, but she also caught it. Technically, she’s awesome, physically she’s a specimen and mentally she … is why we won those two games.”

Helping the UCF soccer team get past the second-round hurdle that had tripped the program up each of the past four seasons and ultimately advance further than it has in 24 years has made Reis reflective this week. She has wondered so much of late where she’d be right now had her love of soccer not led her back to the practice field in Brazil that fateful day five years ago.

“It’s amazing because Colby was there for that practice, my only practice that I went to. Colby saw me and told me he wanted to keep in touch and that he wanted me to come to America and play for UCF,” Reis remembered. “That just fired me up and made me realize that I could follow my passion, which has always been soccer. I went back to playing again and I was so fortunate to come to UCF.”

And UCF was quite fortunate as well to have Reis, one of the most decorated players in school history. She was a second-team All-American selection as a redshirt freshman, UCF’s first All-American selection since 1995. She was a All-C-USA pick as a sophomore and junior. And this past season, she had 79 saves, nine shutouts and a 0.82 goals against average.

“She is the warrior of this team. She’s had knee and shoulder surgeries, but physically she is a specimen,” Cromwell said. “I’m not sure she’s 5-3 even though that’s what she’s listed at, but athletically she’s amazing. And it’s mainly about her mentality. She brings that Brazilian swagger to our team. She was amazing both games (against Florida and North Carolina). She just made some saves that other people don’t make.”

Now, Reis doesn’t want this UCF run to end. She said she was actually happy about UCF getting to play Wake Forest again after the Demon Deacons beat UCF 1-0 early in the season in Orlando. And she was the one who kept the Knights fighting late in the game after giving up a “crushing” tying goal to North Carolina that forced overtime.

Long ago, Reis saw potential in UCF much the same way Hale saw potential in the fearless and fiery goal keeper.

“By my first year here I knew that UCF was a great team. We had all of these expectations to make it farther than we’ve ever made it and now we’re finally doing it,” Reis said. “I’m just thankful that I’m at UCF because I couldn’t have made a better choice.”

For that, everyone – UCF and Reis – are very thankful.