(Feature Image Credit: Nicholls State Athletics)
Adelaide’s Tessa Calabria had enjoyed an outstanding junior college career, banging in goals and teeing up teammates for fun in her two seasons at Iowa Lakes Community College before making the step-up to NCAA Division I in 2018, joining fellow Australian, Kristy Helmers at Nicholls State. Calabria looked set to improve a Colonels attack that had struggled to score goals in the previous season, having come off a solid season for South Carolina-based Beaufort County SC in the WPSL in addition to her junior college exploits. However, there was to be an early twist in the tale.
“So, I’d just finished playing summer league so I was ready and I was pretty confident,” Calabria told College Matildas. “But at the same time, I had an injury and that was stopping me from training and it also stopped me from going to class.
“I wasn’t able to sit, so I was just skipping class. It stopped me from doing anything without being in excruciating pain. So, 2 or 3 weeks into the season, it forced me to stop playing.”
However, it wasn’t as simple as “having an injury” for Calabria. What manifested as pain in the striker’s leg was actually in a whole different class of issue – a spinal problem that would result in surgery.
“At the time they thought it was a hamstring strain, but once I came home to Adelaide, through all the MRI tests and that, [they found] I had to get a lumbar discectomy.”
“My whole right leg [was in pain], because the nerve goes down into my hamstring. So, my spine was compressing onto the nerve.”
But what is a lumbar discectomy? Essentially, it is surgery to remove part of one of the intervertebral discs in the spine to alleviate pressure on the affected nerve. As one could probably appreciate, it is not a surgery that any person, but particularly an elite athlete, simply jumps into without exhausting all of their other options, and so it was for Calabria, who returned to Australia over the Christmas break to attempt to rectify the issue.
“I went home early and I didn’t go back to America for the spring semester. For all those months we were just trying conservative treatment, from physios, chiros, doctors, and none of it worked, so the last resort was surgery.
“A lot of people were telling me not to get it done, but I was so exhausted from being in pain. I just wanted it done.”
However, the surgery is just the first part of the process. What follows is an arduous rehab process, one that Calabria is still working through as the South Australian looks to ready herself for her final season of college soccer.
“The last few weeks, I’ve been getting back into it, going to physio to do Pilates, doing core stuff, been swimming, and working on the strength again in my core and my back.
“The coach knows what I’ve been going through and that, I’ve just been starting to run in the last week. I feel like, right now, I’m just focusing on one day at a time and just being better than I was the day before. I think once the season starts I’ll be ready.”
However, the injury and recovery process has also altered Calabria’s perspective slightly, with the one-time dominator of junior college defences forced to shift her expectations in what will be her only full season of Division I play after being denied a redshirt following her shortened 2018 campaign.
“In JUCO, I just wanted to go out there, my goal in JUCO was to go out and be top goalscorer, get the most assists, be the best player in the conference. But now, with an injury happening, it’s just…I don’t know.
“I know what I’m capable of, I have confidence in my abilities, but it’s about getting back to full fitness, then I can do what I know I can.”
However, a change in perspective on a personal front hasn’t changed Calabria’s thoughts on what Nicholls State can do this season as a team. Despite finishing bottom of the Southland Conference in 2018 with just a single win to their name, the senior is taking heart from one conference foe’s rapid rise up the table just two seasons ago. With a new coach, former assistant Danny Free, taking the reins, Calabria sees a bright future for the team that now features three Australians as fellow junior college transfer Shauni Reid joins Calabria and Helmers in Thibodaux.
“I think with a new head coach, that’s a positive change, a thing that’s definitely needed. Obviously, I want to make playoffs, and win the conference. I know we can do it, I don’t see why we can’t.
“Lamar, in 2016 they were bottom of the table and the next season they won the conference, so it is possible. We just have to be on the same page and believe, really.”
However, with this also being Calabria’s last season in college after being denied a redshirt in 2018, the senior has one eye towards the future. Whilst she may be currently in the midst of completing a degree in business management, Calabria is set on ensuring her future has more of a footballing flavour. A massive Juventus fan, it comes as little surprise as to her preferred destination following college.
“I do want to go to Europe and play professionally over there, but I know in order to do that I need to have a good season and perform. Especially, with Italy in the World Cup, and all their players coming from the Serie A, I think it would be good to play there.
“I haven’t really thought about [what I want to do with my degree]. I’ve just been concentrating on soccer, really. That’s what I care about at the moment.”