Shelbi Vienna-Hallam: Carving Out Opportunities

Shelbi Vienna-Hallam
Shelbi Vienna-Hallam starred for two seasons at Alabama State, winning 2014 College Matildas Player of the Year.

With seven years in the college system across playing and coaching under her belt, Shelbi Vienna-Hallam has experienced everything from the highs of championship success to the lows of title game defeats and everything in between. We caught up with the 2014 College Matildas Player of the Year to discuss her time in college and see what she’s up to now.

Shelbi Vienna-Hallam may have carved out a highly successful college career, but even making it to the United States in the first place proved difficult enough. Hailing from Tasmania, getting noticed was far from easy for a player coming out of a state where the level of competition perhaps doesn’t hit those same levels as some mainland states.

“Tassie, it’s like, you don’t really have the competition down there to, get to that next level,” Vienna-Hallam explained. “So even when you do try out on the mainland or you go to nationals, you don’t get noticed because you’re ‘just from Tassie’, so you’re not getting that competition day in, day out.

“So that was definitely one of the reasons why I was like ‘Ok, let me go, see if I can make it in the US.’ And there’s just so much more opportunity over there.”

However, those opportunities didn’t initially open up for the Tasmanian. Most players have a few options when they put their name out there, but Vienna-Hallam did not find many offers forthcoming.

“One of the scouting websites came down to Tassie, and you did, I think it was three trials. Then they made a profile for you, a highlight video, and that gets sent out to college coaches, and that’s how I kind of got in contact with [Head Coach] Kanyon Anderson at Peninsula College in Washington.”

“I think I heard from two, so not many at all, and no four-year schools. [So, my options were] very limited, and I think it was purely again, even my highlight tape, I just didn’t have the competition. So, I’m not really getting the pressure on the ball, so I guess they just couldn’t see all my skills.

“And it’s not like you could be like ‘Oh, I played for you know, this big club in Victoria’ or ’I went to play at nationals, but then, you know was picked up at nationals’ kind of thing. Like, you just didn’t have those accolades that you could be like ‘Oh, this is also what I’ve done’, because it was very, very limited.

“That’s the hard thing, trying to get picked up, especially internationally, that’s so hard.”

However, two offers proved to be more than enough for Shelbi, who slotted straight into one of the premier programs in the North West Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC). The Tasmanian would evolve into an integral part of a side that won back-to-back championships during her time with the program, becoming a rock at the heart of the side’s defence. However, it wasn’t as easy as just stepping in and playing, with competition within the squad proving as intense as that coming from the opposition.

I guess the competition was huge there, because we had about 32 on our roster. So, every training session, every game, you were fighting for a position on the roster and then a position to play every game. And I guess, also, the experience that players brought, because there were players from all over the country. So just their style of play was different to what I was used to.

“[The initial adjustment was very hard, very hard. It was just a lot quicker than I was used to, and you just didn’t have enough time on the ball, and you just had to make quick decisions.

“Because I was a little bit slower on the ball, that took a lot to adjust to. [In Tasmania] you have so much time and space, you’re like, oh I can dribble 10 metres, whereas here it’s like ‘no, you can only dribble five metres, you need to pass the ball.’”

But adjust she did, performing well enough in two championship seasons to secure interest from a handful of four-year schools across NCAA Division I and Division II. Georgia Southwestern State were interested, but the allure of Division I pulled Shelbi in the direction of her eventual destination: Alabama State University in Montgomery. For the previous two seasons, Australian star Anastasia McCleary had dominated for the Hornets, but with McCleary on her way to Creighton following a transfer, Shelbi would become the only Aussie on the roster.

“So, I just made a recruiting video myself and sent it out to a bunch of colleges around the nation. Then I actually went to a trial in Georgia, and then the head coach also knew Jodie (Alabama State head coach Jodie Smith) – this was a Division 2 team – so then I think Jodie must have contacted the Division 2 coach, you know, ‘how’s Shelbi, how’d she go at the trial?’ and then he actually contacted me. So, I didn’t actually go to a trial in Alabama, I just went to one in Georgia, and then I got in contact with Jodie, and he was pretty keen, and I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I always wanted to play Division I so I was like ‘why not try Division I?’’

Starring at junior college level is one thing. Making your mark at the NCAA Division I level, regardless of where on the spectrum the team sits, is another entirely. However, the Tasmanian prepared herself well for the jump to the top level of college soccer, slotting in perfectly at Alabama State.

“[I was] very [surprised]. Because I came home for three months between graduating from PC (Peninsula College) and then going to Alabama, so I was working really hard and I was like ‘Am I going to be fit enough? Am I going to be up to their standard?’ and I was very surprised.”

However, despite hitting the ground running, things wouldn’t be entirely straight-forward for Vienna-Hallam. A centre-back by trade, it wasn’t long until the defensive star was thrown into an attacking role in an effort to shake things up as the Alabama State side looked to find their groove.

“So, I came in, and I played centre-back probably for the non-conference games. The first conference game, I think we were down 1-0 and at halftime, Jodie was like ‘Shelbi, you’re going up front.’”

“And I was like, ‘Oh! Ok.’ Because I can obviously play anywhere, but it was a surprise just in that game, just switch straight away. And then, I pretty much played centre forward, every game unless it was a close game, then I’d play there for a bit and then go back to centre back.”

The switch to an attacking role worked wonders for both Shelbi and the team. Vienna-Hallam banged in 7 goals whilst adding 11 assists in her first season in Montgomery, winning College Matildas Player of the Year in the process, and followed that up with another five goals and two assists in 2015. Playing alongside Alaskan twin stars Aaliyah and Ariela Lewis, Vienna-Hallam became part of a highly potent attacking line that helped the Hornets reach the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Championship game in 2015. But for all her personal success, the Hornets had no trophy or NCAA Tournament berth to show for their work over the two seasons, being knocked out in the semi-finals in 2014 before losing to Howard in the final in 2015 after defeating the Bison in the regular season. Shelbi has one word to describe how her playing days at Alabama State ended.

“Heartbreaking,” she remarks. “I think now, even though you can look back and say ‘Yeah, we did have so much success,’ and I did have so much success on the field. It’s still like, you’re not as happy because you didn’t win those championships because you were so close.

“Especially my first season, we had a great second half of the first season, and just missing out in the semis was heartbreaking. And then the finals was even worse the next year. You know, I’m proud to look back at it, but then at times you’re also like, you know, you play a team sport, so obviously you want the biggest prize at the end, and that’s a championship.

“So, I guess, personally, I’m happy and proud of what I achieved over my two years playing, but also a little sad.”

Her playing days at an end, the Hornets star still had a few subjects left to wrap up her study, but with no other reason to remain in college, Vienna-Hallam was looking for something to fill her time. Fortunately, coach Jodie Smith had an idea, one that would transform the next three years of his former player’s life.

“I had an extra year of study to do, and then I was like ‘Well, I don’t want to stay here and not do anything’ so I spoke to Jodie about it. I was like ‘Is there any way I can just come on board and you know, help out?’

“And he said ‘Why don’t you just become the GA coach?’ and I was like ‘Oh, absolutely!’

“And then he was like ‘You’re going to have to be doing goalkeeping.’

“’I’ve never played goalkeeper in my life, so I was like ‘Oh, this is going to be a challenge.’ It was actually such a growth within myself, because it was a completely different side of the game you don’t necessarily realise you can have a big impact on, the players and the group itself.

Shelbi coached goalkeepers at Alabama State, including record-breaking four-year starter Gianna Guyot (pictured) from 2016-18.

“And also, because I played with most of them, like that just made it a little easier to have that connection. If Jodie or (former assistant coach) Sierra (Taylor) at the time, if they didn’t really understand [what they were saying] they could come to me and because I’d had the same experiences as them I could give them a little bit of feedback that way. So, kind of helping between the players and the coaches, just giving a little bit more communication between the two.”

However, there was a transitional period. Having played alongside many of the players she was now coaching, the relationship would, on the face of it, change at the drop of a hat. It’s never that quick though, as Shelbi found.

“At the start it was really hard because I had to make that clear line between I’m now your coach, not an ex-teammate. So that was hard, to start with, but then after that, just the relationship changed a bit, which was kind of nice. I grew, and they also realised ‘she’s a coach now, we have to respect her, we have to let her actually coach us.’ There was a bit of transition time, especially the preseason was a little bit hard, but once we moved forward it was really good.

“What was also nice was, even though I did have the goalkeepers, Ariela, Aaliyah, or Josh (Kayla Edwards) who I used to play up front with, they would come to me and be like ‘Hey, what would you do in this situation?’ so it was kind of nice to see they still respected me and wanted that type of feedback, or help and guidance within the game.”

But whilst playing couldn’t bring Shelbi a SWAC Championship, coaching did. The Hornets went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017, knocking off fellow Aussie Priya Gakhar and Grambling State in penalties in the 2017 championship game. Although the NCAA Tournament resulted in two first round losses to former Sydney FC star Savannah McCaskill’s South Carolina side, the experience remained unforgettable. But did those conference championships make up for not quite getting there as a player?

“Absolutely. It’s a completely different feeling, because obviously when you’re in a game you can actually do something when you’re a player, but when you’re a coach you can’t do anything.”

“So, you’re just relying on the players, and that was very difficult. Because you just want to be out there and making an impact and you really couldn’t, so you had to do it in different ways. But absolutely. It was incredible to go to the NCAA Tournament. (We played South Carolina) both times. Got smashed both times,” Shelbi adds, matter-of-factly.

But why stay in Montgomery for three more years rather than come home and continue playing after that one graduate assistant season? For Vienna-Hallam, it was about being honest with herself and realising where her opportunities lay. Having spent time playing WPSL in the college off-season, Shelbi came to realise that perhaps playing wasn’t the pathway for her.

“So, when I went up to Maine and did a little bit of semi-professional up there, I thought I’d see how I did there before I came back to Tassie or Australia, and kind of see if I’d be able to match it back in Australia. And then I got there, and it was pretty hard, and I just didn’t feel like I would make it to that next level.

“So, there’s no point going home, I’m probably not going to make it. That was pretty much my thought process. I think you just get to a point in my playing career, you’re either good enough to make it to that next level or you’re not, and I had that realisation that I’m probably not going to make it.

“And that’s the thing, you can go back to some clubs with really good sides, but other times, do you really want to go back to a club where you’re going to be the best player and no one’s really pushing you? Like, yeah, you can help players around you, but for me, I like to be pushed, I don’t like to be the best player, I like to be the one that’s being pushed all the time.”

But after three years in Montgomery, all the love in the world for the people and program at Alabama State couldn’t satisfy Shelbi’s desire to push forward into her next chapter. Her playing days officially behind her, she could do one of two things: stay in the States and find another coaching job, or come home and put her degree to use and secure a teaching position in Australia.

“After that realisation, I was like ‘Well, do I keep coaching?’ I was having that in-between thought, like do I continue with that coaching pathway, or do I come back and start a teaching pathway. So, it was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and with the coaching one, it is so hard, because I didn’t really want to stay at Alabama State longer. I kind of wanted to branch off and see where else I could go with coaching.

“I don’t know why I did, it was a couple of weeks and I was like ‘I think I need to go back home. I think I need to start the next stage of my life.’”

Home. Tasmania. Except that’s not where Shelbi ended up. Originally moving to Townsville with an eye to picking up some teaching work alongside coaching, the soccer star from the Apple Isle quickly found herself in Charters Towers. A town of 8,000 people situated 90 minutes inland from Townsville famous for gold mining, cricketer Andrew Symonds, and…definitely not football. Not the round-ball version, anyway

“I moved to Townsville. I wanted the heat, just like Alabama. There are no teams up here. When I first moved to Townsville, my uncle is involved in a bit of goalkeeper coaching in Townsville. So, I was going to play and then coach as well, and then it was just finding a job that I could earn some money, and then within three weeks of moving to Townsville I got a full-time teaching job in Charters Towers.

“So, it was like ‘Ok, I guess I’m moving.’ And there’s no soccer, even PE, trying to teach it, there’s not very many kids who have actually played the game before.

“So, it’s completely different to what I’m used to. Soccer’s huge in Tassie.”

And with that, Vienna-Hallam’s involvement with the game she loves became non-existent. For now. Who knows what the future may bring for the inaugural College Matildas Player of the Year?

However, when it comes to the future for other young players looking for a pathway, Shelbi has no doubts that college is the right choice for players who have the drive and dedication to succeed.

“I think it’s a great pathway, because you have that competition. In Australia, you probably play club, and you train three nights a week and then have one game a week. But then in the college system you’re training every day, if not twice a day, and you’ve got two games a week. So, the competition level is just so much higher overall, like obviously if you’re playing at the Matildas level you’re getting that competition day in, day out, but for aspiring young kids trying to make that next level, college is absolutely a great pathway.

And it’s got to be a player that’s dedicated because, yes you play soccer all the time, but you actually have to study. So, it’s just that dedication to your school but also that dedication to being able to improve and wanting to improve every day for 10 or 11 months out of the year.

“Because I think a lot of people think ‘Oh yeah, I want to go over to America’, like ‘I want to play over there’ – this is a lot of what comes from Tassie – but I’m like ‘Can you do two, three trainings a day, day in day out, is that what you want?’ Because that’s what you’re going to have to be doing to make it to that level. Are you going to be able to be training on your own in the summertime, every day?

“So, you have some people who are naturally talented, but they don’t have that drive to get better. So, if you don’t have that drive, why are you going to put yourself through the college system? It’s plain and simple really, and that’s why when we were recruiting players to play for us, it’s like ‘Can you push yourself, every day, to get better?’

“You’re doing a lot more (than in Australia) because the travel alone. Yeah, you might miss a lot of classes, but when you’re travelling you’re constantly doing work. Either on a bus or a plane wherever you’re travelling to, you’re constantly doing school work so you don’t miss out on anything. So, it’s like a huge juggling act.”

A juggling act it may be. But, as with most things in sports, it takes commitment and dedication but will come with great rewards. Shelbi was able to turn two JUCO offers into a storied career at NCAA Division I level as a player and coach, with her name set to adorn the Alabama State record books for years to come.

Not bad for someone who was just trying to ‘make it in the US’.

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