After injury scuppered what looked to be a promising first NCAA Division I season after an outstanding junior college career, Tessa Calabria is looking to make up for lost time in her final season at Nicholls State.
(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
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
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
“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.”
Fresh off a trip to the NCAA Tournament and winning Texas Tech’s Most Improved Player award, Demi Koulizakis is back in Sydney for the Australian summer. We took the opportunity to catch up with the Red Raiders junior to get some insight into the 2018 season and what the future holds for the former Western Sydney Wanderers W-League player.
College Matildas: You came into this season having not started since early 2016 and only averaged 11 minutes per game last season. Did you have any concerns about how much playing time you would get?
Umm, not really because I came in pretty prepared, so like, I worked really hard. So, I knew I was going to get way more game time, and my coach reassured me of that as well. I was kind of injured in spring season, I rolled my ankle a few times so that was a setback. But when I was back here, I played for Sutherland and I was playing full game time there, played a few 90-minute games before I went back to America, and that helped me a lot.
You played more minutes in the first game of this season than you had in any game last season. How much confidence did that give you for the rest of the season?
Yeah, it did, for sure. As I said, I started off really well in the pre-season, so that helped me.
You scored your first college goal this season – a cracker against Florida International.
*laughs* About time!
Take us through that goal.
Well, one of the defenders on my team, she played a through ball over, I saw her put her hand up so I ran onto it and then I had it on my right foot, I quickly put it on my left and shot into the top right-hand corner…it was pretty good.
Just eight minutes later, Demi Koulizakis bombed one in with the left foot!
What did it mean to finally get your first college goal?
It was awesome, because my mum was there as well. So having my mum watch me, and my best friends, it was awesome.
You earned your first start in two years against West Virginia. When did you find out you’d be starting?
The day before, actually. It was pretty intense, it was scary because West Virginia are one of the top teams, well they were, they made the final two years ago. It was honestly an unreal feeling.
How did they tell you? Was it one-on-one or did you just get a team list and you were on it?
Yeah, I got told one-on-one on the morning of the game. My coach sent me a message, saying this is your chance to prove yourself and make a difference, which was really nice.
CM: How did you react?
Oh, I was pumped, for sure. It pumped me up.
What do you see as your role in the team?
As my coach says, I feel like I’m a game-changer, if that makes sense. An impact player. I mean, I want to be starting, but I have to work hard for that to happen.
You played 100 minutes against Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, and with seven seniors in this season’s team, do you feel that next season is your big chance?
Yeah, I’d say that is my big chance, because we’re losing a lot of players. So, I just have to be better and work harder to get a spot, because nobody’s spot is secured.
CM: The team reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament and took Virginia to penalties. Is there a sense that the team could maybe have gone further? You would have played Baylor in the next round, a team you took to overtime in the Big 12 Tournament.
100%. There’s no way Baylor would have beaten us three times. The second time, honestly, they were probably lucky to get the win; we went into extra time with them.
CM: Does that result against Virginia give you more drive to push on for next season?
Oh, 100%. We’re still a fresh program that’s building up; Virginia’s been there a long time – they’ve had so many NCAA Tournament appearances and everything. We’re just going year-by-year, hoping to get better.
CM: You missed a penalty in the shootout in that game…
Yep. Yeah, I did.
CM: Talk us through walking up to the spot…
I honestly was off from the first second. I was so tired. I hadn’t played 100 minutes in such a long time. I was walking up to the spot and then in the corner of my eye I saw all the Baylor girls – because they were playing after us – walk up to the back of the goal to watch me take my penalty, and then I was off from that second. Then I went to take the penalty, the keeper dove my way, I tried to miss her, and then it just went out wide.
CM: A bit like Mark Viduka against Uruguay in 2005?
*laughs* Yeah, pretty much; even the best miss sometimes!
CM: You won Most Improved Player for Texas Tech, but you weren’t even at the ceremony. How did you find out that you’d won?
So, my teammates were telling me, most of them were saying that they’d voted for me. I pretty much found out when one of my teammates Facetimed me and told me. I was like, ‘Oh cool, thanks!’
CM: What are you doing to prepare for the coming season?
Working very hard! Training every day, doing the right things, trying to eat healthy, all the good stuff, you know?
Will you be playing in Australia during your break?
In May, I will be. I’ll be playing (NPLNSW) for Sydney Olympic, hopefully getting some game time there, and preparing myself for the upcoming season.
CM: You played a little bit for Sydney Uni after your freshman year, and a bit more for Sutherland after last season. What difference did you notice coming back to America having gotten more game time playing for Sutherland?
I just felt like I improved as a player, I got more touches on the ball, it helped me with everything. My fitness is the best it’s been since I got to college.
CM: Do you feel like you get a head-start over players who don’t play in the off-season?
So, there’s a lot of girls who stay in America during summer, stay on campus and train with the coaches, but I feel it’s not much of an advantage compared to playing here. They don’t get many touches on the ball, and match fitness is a big thing.
CM: You’re coming up to your senior season. Have you thought about where you want to play after college?
Honestly, I want to play in Europe somewhere, that’d be really cool.
CM: Do you have a European passport?
I can get one. I need to go and apply for it!
CM: Is there any particular country you’d like to go to?
Probably Sweden. Sweden looks pretty cool. There’s two girls that are Texas Tech alumni that played in Sweden that told me about it and they said it’s pretty cool.
CM: You’ve had three years’ experience in college. What advice would you give to young players thinking about college?
I feel like they should take the opportunity, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You get to play soccer, study as well, get a good degree at the end of it. It’s honestly such a good experience overall.
CM: A lot of players say that if they play in the W-League or NPL, that’s always going to be there, they can always come back and try that. But college, you’ve only got those four or five years to have the opportunity to play. Is that something you agree with?
100%. It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I was so iffy about leaving my family and my parents, but I didn’t want to have a regret, you know? If I went there, and I didn’t like it, I could just come back. Then at least I’d tried it.
Imagine this: you’ve been heavily recruited by a school, decided it’s where you want to go, you’re all set to head there and start playing college soccer, and then suddenly – not so fast. Well, that’s what happened to Lauren Featherstone as she prepared to make the move from southwest Sydney to Central Connecticut State University, with the freshman falling foul of the NCAA’s academic rules for incoming freshmen. Whilst she could still head over, she wouldn’t be playing that first season.
“Basically, I didn’t have enough academic credits,” Featherstone explains. “I didn’t do the right subjects, and I also dropped one of my classes in Year 12. I really didn’t realise about the college credits, which didn’t help my case. I basically didn’t do the right subjects.”
“It was around signing day in 2017 that I found out that was going to happen, so it was pretty late in the process. I had been talking to CCSU for about 10 months before that. It was an every week thing. I had to send them transcripts, then they’d ask for something I’d have to send to the NCAA or something, so it was pretty late.”
However, Featherstone’s journey to college started much earlier, as many of her teammates at Westfields Sports High School started heading over, piquing the midfielder’s interest.
“I’d say about Year 9 I heard about it, and then ever since then I was interested in it,” Featherstone reveals. “It was actually pretty early on during high school, because the older girls, like (former Colorado and Troy defender) Alex Huynh, they were there and they were going to college and ever since then it’s been like, a dream of mine to go to college.”
So how does a player who has been interested in college for so long end up being forced to sit out her freshman season due to academic ineligibility?
“I think the problem with me was that I was kind of naïve,” the Macarthur Rams product revealed. “I thought it would be fine, I didn’t really look into it, or think it was that much of a process.”
Although she would not be able to play in 2017, Featherstone maintained a positive mindset. Secure in the fact that Central Connecticut State had gone all-out to secure her signature, the midfielder came in knowing that even though she couldn’t impact games in her first season, she would be able to make her mark on the field in the long-term. Featherstone also had someone with plenty of experience in her corner: former Matildas midfielder and conference player of the year at CCSU Leah Blayney, who now coaches at Westfields Sports High as well as in the Matildas setup, helped kickstart the process for Featherstone.
“So, Leah helped me a lot in the recruiting process, she said that she had these three schools for me that said that they have full scholarships. It was Fairleigh Dickinson, William & Mary, and Central Connecticut State,” Featherstone revealed.
“I was emailing all three of them at first. I sent them each a highlights video and a player resume which is like a timeline of all my achievements.”
All three schools have pre-existing links to Australia. Defender Sam Roff is a rock at the heart of defence for Fairleigh Dickinson, whilst Lorena Bugden was part of William & Mary’s freshman class last season and current UMBC head coach Vanessa Mann was an assistant for the Tribe until last season. But the women’s soccer program at Central Connecticut State almost resembles an Australian embassy, with Blayney and Featherstone just two of a handful of Aussies to feature for the Blue Devils in recent seasons, including Sydney FC W-League winning goalkeeper Nikola Deiter, who started for the Sky Blues’ title-winning team in 2009 even before heading over to college.
“Leah told me about the others, and that they definitely love their Aussies over there,” Featherstone explained.
“it’s a great place for us over there, they’re really accepting. They were definitely very keen. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Central, they were very keen on me.
“Pretty early on I decided on Central. They really stood out to me, the coach seemed like he really wanted me. We did a lot of Skyping, and he showed me around the school, he just made everything really clear, and pretty early on I knew I wanted to go there.”
However, it hardly matters how much a coach wants a player to play and how much a player wants to play for the team once the NCAA gets involved. Despite this, CCSU coach Mick D’Arcy did everything he could to ensure Featherstone would get to school as soon as possible, and once she was there, the team’s newest Australian took it all her in her stride.
My coach, he really fought the NCAA on the case. He said ‘we’ll take her and she can just redshirt for the first semester’, so it was an official redshirt. I wasn’t allowed to practice, wasn’t allowed to travel, I had to stay on campus when they travelled and everything. So it was just a whole lot of sidelining for that first semester, and next semester I was back into it.
“To be honest, I didn’t really have any concerns because I knew it would happen wherever I went. It’s just credits, it’s not Central’s fault or anything,” Featherstone states philosophically. “They told me they had a lot of stuff I could do still, like I still did workouts. Even though I wasn’t allowed to practice with the team, I could still lift. So it wasn’t like I was just sitting there studying, I was still doing a lot.”
Whilst she may have been doing a lot of training, Featherstone couldn’t do any of it with the team, either on or off the field. Rather than lament the situation, the freshman chose to see the positives that she could take from redshirting.
“At first it was tough, but then I enjoyed it. I was there by myself, but I was still getting the workout in,” says Featherstone.
“I really felt like when I got back into training like my strength got up, like I had more endurance, I feel like it prepared me.”
For all that preparation though, Featherstone still had to come back into the team with a group of players who had no doubt heard about how good their new player might be, and that she’d been training hard by herself, but to whom she had yet to prove herself. It didn’t take long for the Australian to settle into the team dynamic.
“It was quite challenging at first, because they all knew me and I felt like there was a lot of anticipation to see how good I really was, and if I was as good as the coaches said,” Featherstone reveals. “But they were all very welcoming. They’re a great group of girls; I felt at home from my very first practice. The nerves were there but I felt at home.”
Whilst the playing group may have been welcoming, impressing the coaching staff can often be a completely different case. Clearly, Featherstone has the class that the coach saw when recruiting her in previous years, as shown by what the midfielder has been told during spring practice.
“Basically, they said that the midfield role is going to be my role. They did try me out at right back, so they know I can do that as well. But for this season I think I fit in pretty well in midfield, at the 6 or 8,” Featherstone revealed.
“The 8 role is probably my favourite. I can play the 10 as well, but we’ve got a really great 10 at the moment, she does a really good job there. But I said to the coach I think I’d work well in the midfield in that team, because I understand the playmaker role, distributing from defence to forward.”
They did say that I have a good chance of getting that starting role when the season comes around, but it’s obviously not just going to be given to me, I have to work for it.
“From the start of spring semester to the end we did weekly fitness tests, and I did really well. They basically said ‘you’re doing well, just keep doing that,’ and that’s basically what I have to do, keep maintaining the improvement and I’ll be in there.”
Featherstone appears to have come into the team at the perfect time. Having finished 6-2 in conference play last season and reached the conference semi-finals, and with only a small number of players graduating earlier this year, CCSU are primed for a run at the conference championship this season, and the entire team is motivated, Featherstone included.
“The last spring semester, all the senior players said it’s the hardest spring semester they’ve ever had. So, I think the coach is really pushing us this year, and he’s really motivated all of us; we really want to win the NECs and get into the NCAA Tournament. I definitely think we’re very ready for the season that’s coming up.”
If they are to win the conference championship, the Blue Devils will have to get through two teams featuring Australians. Sam Roff’s Fairleigh Dickinson reached the championship game last season, but it was St. Francis University that got past them in the final to win the championship and ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament. That St. Francis team features Shelby Milton, not just another Aussie, but someone who Featherstone knows quite well, to say the least. Although Featherstone couldn’t travel to road games last season, the pair did get to see each other when St. Francis travelled to CCSU for the conference semi-final, where St. Francis picked up a 2-1 victory.
“Shelby is actually a really close family friend, and it’s funny because they’re our rivals. Luckily, that (semi-final) was at home so I got to see Shelby after the game. It was good to see another Aussie. It’ll definitely be a funny thing, because after the game, some of the girls barely look each other in the eye to say good game, but we’ll run up to each other and give each other a hug,” Featherstone explains. When asked if she wants to get revenge on Milton and SFU, she simply laughs and says “Yeah.”
Whilst academics and athletics combined get you that college scholarship, academics last much longer than athletics and Featherstone realises this, which was the basis for her decision to go to college as she looks to achieve her long-term goals both on and off the field.
“I knew what I wanted and I really wanted to go to Central. But I did really look at William & Mary in the early stages because of how well they do academically, as that’s really important to me as well,” Featherstone revealed.
“My grades in high school were kind of up and down; they weren’t really that great. I did have some trouble outside of school that affected my grades pretty early on, but they said ‘It wasn’t the easiest path for you throughout high school, but we’ve got this study hall specifically for athletes, we’ve got tutors, we’ve got advisors,’ and it’s been great. I’m best friends with all these advisors, I go in there every day, they help me with any issues I have, and they’ve been really helpful.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to go overseas is so I could play my sport and get the degree. I could’ve done it here, but it just meshes together over there. It’s a lifestyle. I think that’s one of the main reasons, to get my degree and achieve my goals in soccer as well.”
“Basically, my main goal is to get that degree, and get a good job set up, because soccer isn’t forever. I was majoring in exercise science the first two semesters. I really enjoyed all the science stuff, but I realised I didn’t want a job from that degree so I changed to sociology. I did some research into it before I switched, and I think I’d enjoy an advisor role or a human resources officer, something like that.”
“On-field, I think my long-term goals would be to make the Matildas, get recruited into the NWSL, and just enjoy my college, win some championships, win some rings if I can.”
Whatever the future may bring, Featherstone’s first year has provided her with the opportunity to provide some sage advice for players so that they can avoid winding up in the situation that she found herself in.
“Just do your preparation, do your research, talk to the colleges, ask them any questions, they’ll tell you everything. Just don’t be scared to ask questions. It’s definitely a long process, so it’s never too early to start preparing yourself for it.”
How does a player from the coastal town of Busselton, Western Australia wind up in south-east Texas at Lamar University? If you’re Siobhan Longmore, it takes a long and winding road that detours through not one, but two junior colleges, and a little bit of guidance from your family. We caught up with Siobhan to find out more about the Dodge City Community College transfer’s journey to this point.
On the back of a glittering junior career that included state representation and a move from Busselton to Perth to continue her development, Siobhan Longmore has spent the past two seasons as an integral part of the Dodge City Community College women’s soccer team. (Yes, that’s Dodge City as in the term ‘get the hell out of Dodge.’) However, it wasn’t a truly smooth ride to get there in the first place as the Western Australian originally planned on playing at another school altogether.
“My sister, Ariana, was a freshman at Dodge City, and I was originally going to a school in Georgia called Georgia Military College. I got there, and it really just wasn’t what I expected and hoped it to be,” Longmore explained. “So the coach at Dodge City, Tim Romanello, took me in and I came here basically because my sister was here. She’s now graduated and she’s playing in California. So pretty much it’s because of my sister that I came here.”
Ariana’s presence at Dodge City may just have saved Siobhan’s career, because it wasn’t long before she was ready to leave Georgia and head back to Busselton, her college career over even before it started.
“I was going to come home three days into it; I hated it. It wasn’t what I was told it was going to be, so I was going to pack my bags and leave,” Longmore revealed. “But my family’s very supportive, they never want me to give up. My sister’s my biggest fan, I’m her biggest fan; she just said, ‘Nope, you’ve got to give it a chance.’ And I’m glad I did because I’ve made so many friends, and it’s just been amazing.”
But why attend a junior college in the first place? Longmore received interest from four year schools, but her sister’s guidance and the chance to play from the outset made the prospect of using her first two years in the US to set herself up for Division I all the more enticing.
“When I first got recruited, I got a lot of emails from four year schools. But my sister was at a community college, and she pretty much said ‘Listen, it’s going to set you up for a four-year, it’s going to give you the experience,’” Longmore explained. “For most incoming freshmen going to a four year university, it’s hard to get playing time. It was good at the community college, I mean, I played every game and I feel like it definitely has developed me to go to the next level.”
Longmore was certainly thrown in the deep end at Dodge City, though. A centre back throughout her junior years, then-Dodge City coach Tim Romanello had different plans for his newest player, moving Siobhan into a new position from the outset in what proved to be an inspired decision.
“He was an amazing coach, practices were different every day, I learnt so many new things. Honestly, I moved to America to play as a centre back, and the first day I got to America, he put me in as a centre midfielder, and I loved it,” Longmore explained. “I played centre midfield for the last two years, and it’s just developed my game. I’ve created so much more skill and strength and speed that I never had before, that I didn’t know I could have.”
“Over the last two years I’ve gained so much speed that I didn’t know I had. I’m not the best with foot skills, but I’ve got them there, and I have a very strong shot from the left side. I’m very competitive – if someone passes me, I’ll get mad about it and it’ll never happen again.”
“So now I’ve been recruited to play left defender (at Lamar), which is good because I’m left-footed and I love defence, and I also love attacking, which is what I can do in that position.”
However, the chance to play a certain position is never the be-all and end-all when it comes to recruiting, with many other factors coming into play. Hailing from a coastal town, Longmore craved a return to a beachside setting, but clearly there were other factors at play, including the opportunity to play for a team that coach Steve Holeman has turned from a 2 win team in 2016 to conference champions in 2017. However, it wasn’t Holeman who recruited Longmore, but one of his assistants.
“My whole recruiting process didn’t go through him, it went through the assistant coach Henry (Zapata), I knew the background and how (Holeman) has carried the team to be conference winners. I just think it’s amazing how you can turn around in one season. But my whole recruiting process went through Henry, and he was so good, and very open and honest about everything,” Longmore explained.
“We were talking for about a month and a half. I was going to go out and visit, but with school and stuff I couldn’t, and it got to the point where just after Christmas, I actually told him that Lamar probably won’t be a place for me.
“He came back, he offered me a full scholarship, and he pretty much made it sound like everything I wanted it to be. I have family in Texas, so at that point we took the drive up there, and I looked at the campus, and I absolutely loved it. I saw the soccer field, and I’m actually going up there in about three weeks to meet the team and watch them play one of their spring games, so I’m really excited.”
“When I came in as a sophomore, I said to everyone, ‘I am going somewhere on the beach, I don’t care where it is!’ I put it out there to schools in California and Florida, and, there was a school in Florida that I was going to go to, but Lamar came up and it was the best option for me.”
So what does the future hold for Lamar’s newest Australian? The junior certainly has big dreams, with one eye on entering the professional ranks following her two years at the top level of college soccer.
“I’m staying in America for the summer, so I’m going to be training hard, and after the two years, I know that this is big to say, but I really want to get picked up by the Houston Dash. I guess that’s kind of the dream, so I have to go hard from start to finish,” Longmore explains, slightly shyly.
“But you know, if I was to come home, I would hopefully try to get into the Perth Glory team. I’ve tried that before, but then I’ve developed so much as a player, like I didn’t even know I could develop that much. But I definitely want to continue soccer, I want to keep playing at the highest level I can.”
Interestingly, Siobhan will not be the only Australian junior college transfer to be playing in the Southland Conference, with Iowa Lakes Community College transfer Tessa Calabria joining fellow Australians Kristy Helmers and Tenille Harberger at Nicholls State. The pair even faced off in a junior college match last season, with both sides featuring a number of Australians.
“We actually have a photo together! We we played against them at the start of the season, and one of the other girls who plays on the Iowa team, I went to school with her and lived with her when I went to John Curtin College (in Perth). So it was kind of a big reunion there, and then we got together and there were four Australians on the team. I was like, ‘Let’s take a big photo of all the Australians!’. There’s another Australian on my team, my roommate, who’s also from Busselton, so we have a photo of about six of us, which was cool.”
“We’ve been in contact, we’ve been talking about it, and she told me that’s where she was going to go, and I said that’s awesome, we’re going to be playing against each other. I love playing against other Aussies, and even when I’m at basketball games and I see Australians on the other team’s roster, after the game I go up to them, I give them a hug, we have such good chats, it’s so cool.”
A University of Wyoming goalkeeping stalwart and four-time College Matildas Goalkeeper of the Year, Georgia Rowntree has recently accepted an offer to continue her studies in the form of a Doctorate of Physical Therapy at Columbia University in New York. We caught up with the Cowgirls legend to get some insight into her pathway to this point, and also her future plans.
Long before the college recruiting process even began for Georgia Rowntree, the goalkeeper was determined to move into physiotherapy or a similar field following her playing days. With a chosen pathway already in mind before leaving for the United States, Rowntree was able to go through the process with a fine-tooth comb before even making a decision regarding whether to go to college or stay in Australia. As Wyoming was the only college program seriously pursuing the goalkeeper, the main point for Rowntree was finding a major that fit her plans for the future.
“I had always planned on going to uni in Australia, and I’d gotten into the Bachelor’s of Physiotherapy program at Sydney Uni, so I knew that that was the area I wanted to go into,” Rowntree explains. “So when I chose my major at Wyoming, I basically looked into what’s the most similar thing I can do, what’s an exercise science major that I can do at Wyoming, and that was kinesiology and health. I looked into what was the best undergraduate degree for me to do that would allow me entry into a physiotherapy program or something like that if I chose to come back home.”
With a plan in mind, Rowntree took advantage of the opportunity to discuss her future pathways with academic staff, both at Wyoming and at the University of Sydney, to ensure that she was headed in the right direction with her future plans. There can often be a risk when Australian students travel to the US to study medically-related fields with regards to satisfying requirements of post-graduate programs in Australia, but Rowntree ensured she had all bases covered regardless of which side of the Pacific her future lay.
“When i was speaking to [Wyoming coach] Pete Cuadrado about being recruited, I definitely asked those questions about [post-graduate study in Australia], and I was able to talk to one of the academic advisors at Wyoming about the best degree to go into, just so I wasn’t left in a degree that sort of meant nothing – not that degrees mean nothing anyway – but just one that would put me on the right path.”
“And I actually made sure that I spoke to someone at Sydney University about that as well, and if I came home if I would be able to get into the same program in Sydney, a Master’s with that degree.”
However, nothing is set in stone, as Rowntree explains with regards to her discussions with Sydney Uni.
“I took a bit of a chance, because I remember Sydney Uni saying, you know, right now you’ll probably be fine with that degree and those subjects that they offer in that degree, but you know, our prerequisites change all the time so you’ll have to double-check. But I was still pretty confident, because you know, the human body’s the human body, how wrong can you go?”
In any event, regardless of her plans, Rowntree’s future was destined to involve post-graduate study due to the structure of the degree that she studied at Wyoming.
“I knew that with my Bachelor’s in Kinesiology, I’d need to follow that up with some kind of graduate school, be that in Australia or the States, so I’d always kind of planned on that,” Rowntree explained.
“The idea of doing grad school in the States was always sort of in the back of my mind, because my major in Wyoming is considered a pre-professional program, so everyone is groomed for applying to different professional programs like physical therapy or occupational therapy.”
“So everyone talks about it there, like ‘this subject is really good for PT (physical therapy) school’ or ‘this subject is really good for OT (occupational therapy) school’, and I was just making sure that I got my prerequisites for Australia done.”
“But when I really started thinking about applying to PT school in the US was after I’d done some observation with physical therapists in the United States, just out of interest, seeing how their jobs differed from physios in Australia.”
“it was being in those environments that really motivated me to apply to PT school in the States.”
Rowntree applied to schools all over the US, from schools in the Pacific Northwest to Louisiana State University, and, of course, Columbia University in New York. But to say that Rowntree was less than optimistic about the Columbia application would be an understatement.
“I applied to seven different schools. Part of it was just – what is a place in the United States that I would like to live? I didn’t really have much idea of where I wanted to go at all, and I mean being from Sydney, the idea of living in New York City isn’t that foreign to me. I applied to places with good reputations, and also nice places to live. I just figured that if I didn’t get into any of those, I could just come home and live in Sydney, so I applied to the seven best schools in the country that I thought would suit me best.”
“Columbia was one that I just sort of threw in there. Of course, everyone knows Columbia, it has that huge international reputation. I never in a million years thought that I would hear back from them, so that was just a shot in the dark. There were schools like the University of Utah in Salt Lake City – which was a team we had played against, and I really liked their facilities when we played there – I thought that would be a really nice school to go to, and more like the level that I thought I’d be on. The fact that Columbia got in touch with me and invited me for an interview, and then on top of that accepted me, that was just a dream come true. That was just an application that I threw in there because it would be fun and thought ‘why not have a shot?’, and it’s turned out well, so that’s basically it!”
With a place in one of the world’s finest universities secured, Rowntree is now set, having moved from a major world city in Sydney to Laramie four years ago, to move from Laramie to the world’s major city in New York. There are many changes coming for the senior, but Rowntree is ready to face them all head-on.
“It’s a huge environment change, but that’s why I’m super-excited. I’ve been living in a small country town, and it’s been a huge experience and taught me a lot, coming from the suburbs of Sydney where there’s 4 million people. I guess I think it’s going to be really awesome to be in a new place. My dad said it’s the centre of the world, so you know, anything can happen there, and I’m just really keen to get to that new place.”
“It’s going to be really tough. PT school you go to class at 8am, then you have an hour for lunch, and you get done at 5pm every day. You spend all your time in your first year in an anatomy lab dissecting a dead body, then going home and studying what you’ve done in lab that day, so it’s going to be crazy-intense, but it’s going to be super-rewarding. I’m sure being at an institution like Columbia, I’m going to be well-taken care of.”
“I’ve just got to get used to living in a small apartment I guess. I mean, I guess I already live in a small apartment, but an even smaller one probably!”
Whilst academia has been one part of Rowntree’s life in Laramie, soccer has obviously played a major part in the goalkeeper’s time in the United States to this point. Juggling the two has been a struggle at times for Rowntree, but in the end the experience has proven to be rewarding.
“It’s really tough. When you’re a college soccer player in the US, you do a lot of travelling, it’s honestly the hardest part, having to miss lectures and labs and stuff like that because you’re off playing all over the country,” Rowntree explains.
“But the culture on the Wyoming team is very academically motivated; our team GPA was a 3.5 or something crazy. When we’re away everyone’s doing homework in the lobby or studying, and it makes you manage your time better and become a more professional student because you really have to be on top of all of your stuff.”
“In my freshman year we had a schedule where 14 of our 20 games were away games, so I missed a tonne of school, and that was a huge struggle, especially in my first year of college. You sort of just adapt, communicate with your professors and stuff like that.”
“I honestly think playing soccer made me a better student because there was no time to procrastinate, like I just had to get everything done, ultimately ahead of time. But it’s definitely hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
However, whilst the Cowgirls’ stalwart’s academic career marches forward, we may have seen the last of Georgia Rowntree between the sticks at a competitive level. Rowntree is nonetheless philosophical about her time in the game, choosing instead to focus on what football has delivered to this point in her life.
“I was definitely very fortunate that I was able to play college soccer. I was at a standstill in the Australian system, I’d been on a W-League team for a couple of years but I hadn’t really played, and there were a lot of excellent up-and-coming goalkeepers. And I was playing for Sydney Uni, but I’d been playing first grade since I was 15 or 16, so my career wasn’t going anywhere,” Rowntree reveals in explaining her initial reasons for making the move to college.
“Wyoming was the next big step, and I’d always sort of thought that once i was done at Wyoming I’d come home and try to play in the W-League again and I certainly could do that. I think I’m certainly good enough to do that, but four years of college soccer at 7,000 feet takes its toll on your body, and I’ve got pretty bad tendinitis in my knees and, you know, old people problems with my body. Hitting the ground hundreds of times a day as a goalkeeper takes its toll.”
Rowntree laughs as she says this and it is evident that she is comfortable with her decision to leave the competitive side of the game behind. So, is this a retirement call?
“For the moment, I’d like to say yes, but I’m sure you’ll find me playing rec league soccer in New York somewhere. I think I’m going to miss it too much. I certainly hope to coach somewhere. I’m not going to play competitively again, I don’t think. I’m not good enough to get drafted (to the NWSL), second of all everything hurts when i run,” Rowntree laughs a little once more.
“I have no issues with that, I’ve benefited so much from playing soccer. Ultimately, the game of football has brought me to this place in my life, where I’m about to attend the best university in the world and have this amazing professional career in my future. I love the game of football so much that I don’t think I’ll be able to be disconnected from it for a long time, but I just don’t think I can keep up the competitiveness that I’ve maintained since I was 12 years old.”
“I went to the Wanderers game on New Year’s Day and I was watching young Jada (Jada Whyman, Western Sydney Wanderers W-League goalkeeper) play – she went to school with my sister and is good friends with my sister – and I was thinking that would be so fun, playing before the men’s team, because I just love the Wanderers so much, my whole family are huge Wanderers fans, but then I thought about how much training she’s probably done this week, and I was just like ‘maybe I don’t miss it so much.’”
So, does Rowntree have any parting messages for the next generation of players considering a move to college?
“If anything I guess I’d just like young players to know that if they’re thinking about going to the States, it isn’t only an amazing way to further your playing career but also yourself as a person. A lot of people doubt the value of an American college education but the reality is that it is really an invaluable thing.”
With a season of W-League experience under her belt, former Western Sydney Wanderers player Lorena Bugden has decided to take her talents to Virginia to play for William & Mary. Bugden will link up with fellow Australian, assistant coach Vanessa Mann, and play in the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference that already features a pair of Australians. Emily Hulbert is entering her senior season at Hofstra, whilst Emma Heckenberg is about to start her junior year at Drexel, making for plenty of matchups between the Aussies in 2017.
The process began early for the young star from Glenmore Park in Western Sydney, who had her eye on college from day 1.
“Well, going to college in America has always been a dream of mine throughout my high school years. But, it first started to become a reality when I was in Year 9,” Bugden explained. “I was approached at a Combined High Schools tournament by a scout from Wyoming who was impressed by my game and gave my coach a business card to give to my parents. That then led to them getting in contact with me and coming to watch me play twice a year.”
The University of Wyoming is certainly one of the premier destinations for Australians looking to make the move to college. Through previous coach Danny Sanchez and current coach Pete Cuadrado, the school has lured several players with W-League experience to the United States. These names include Alisha Bass, Georgia Rowntree, Candace Sciberras, Liz O’Reilly, Loren Mahoney, and 2017 recruit Brooke Miller. Bugden would talk to Sydney University NPL teammate O’Reilly about playing in college, but the new Tribester’s journey would take a turn of its own as she began to promote herself more actively.
“In April last year, I put together a highlight video of myself playing and uploaded it to YouTube. I also forwarded the link to my friends in the USA so they could show their coaches,” Bugden revealed. “I didn’t realise my video was going to have the impact it had. It resulted in me receiving a number of offers to attend college in the US.”
Suddenly, there was competition for the Sydneysider’s signature. Several schools that have featured Australians on their roster took an interest in Bugden. Fairleigh Dickinson and Albany, two schools which currently have Australians on their rosters in the form of Samantha Roff and Claire Urquhart, both saw something in the former W-League player. Troy University in Alabama also tried to keep their link to Western Sydney alive following Alex Huynh’s graduation, but William & Mary soon had the inside running.
“[William & Mary Head Coach] John Daly got in contact with me after watching my video and we spoke over Skype. He told me he was coming to Sydney to watch me play.
“He came 2 weeks later and was impressed with how I played and asked if I wanted to be a Tribester!”
Soon after, Bugden had made the decision to make the move to Williamsburg to continue her football career, with her reasons for making the change crystal clear.
“I chose to go to the US as it is an unbelievable opportunity for me as a player and person to experience life in another country,” Bugden explained. “I will be playing football at the highest level and I will be studying at a fantastic college. I believe I will be a better player when I return to Australia.”
“My long term goals in football are to represent my country, continue to develop my game and be the best player I can be. I also want to be drafted to a professional team in the NWSL.”
William & Mary is certainly a college that brings an excellent balance of academics and athletics, especially in non-revenue sports such as women’s soccer. The Colonial Athletic Association is one of the better mid-major conferences in the sport, and is referred to as a “public Ivy” for its academic standing and ability to attract high level students in a similar manner to the Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Bugden certainly has her sights set on securing her future beyond football, and moving to an academically elite university is one of the best ways to set about doing exactly that.
“Having a degree is very important; whilst I love football I won’t always be able to play so I need to have a degree and profession to fall back on,” Bugden explained. “I want to major in psychology.”
“Off the pitch I want to be the best student I can be.”
On the field, the Tribe women’s soccer team will be looking to bounce back in 2017, having slipped from 14 wins in 2015 to just scraping by with 10 wins from their 20 games in 2016 to continue their NCAA record-equalling streak of consecutive winning seasons. It is often tough to judge just how much playing time a freshman will get, especially coming in from overseas, but Bugden believes she has a skillset that can assist her team from the outset.
“Firstly I pride myself as being a team player, I am creative and skillful and I have a style of play that is very versatile,” the Sydneysider outlined. “I believe I will be an asset for William and Mary and my goal is to be part of a team that will win their conference and the NCAA Championship.”
An NCAA Championship is an incredibly lofty goal for any mid-major side, but winning a Colonial Athletic Association title is one that is on William & Mary’s agenda every season, with ten conference titles and 25 NCAA Tournament appearances already in the books.
Bugden won’t be the only Australian in the program – former Nevada player Vanessa Mann is now assistant coach at William & Mary. Bugden is understandably happy to have another Australian around, but never let the fact cloud her judgement when choosing a school.
“[Having another Australian at the program] didn’t influence my decision to choose William and Mary but it certainly is a bonus to have a fellow Australian at the college.”
However, Bugden is certainly hopeful that William & Mary can become a destination for Australian players in the same way that programs like Wyoming, Colorado, and Nicholls State have become.
“I can only speak for myself but I will definitely be promoting the college every chance I get. So hopefully in the future other Australian players will have the opportunity to attend William and Mary.”
Slightly ironically, Lorena has another university program to thank for helping her get to college in the US. Having moved to NPL NSW club Sydney University in recent seasons, it was this club that assisted Lorena in bouncing back after suffering a knee injury last season.
“I sustained a contact ACL injury last year in June which has been the only major injury I have had in my career. My ACL rehab is being managed here by highly qualified surgeon, physiotherapists and also by a great strength and conditioning coach and team from Sydney University,” Lorena explained. However, she also has full confidence in the William & Mary program to ensure she returns to her best.
“The facilities at William and Mary are world class and I am sure they will manage my return to full fitness.”
Many players who have played in the W-League have found success at the college level, and Bugden is well placed to become another, with many coaches of high pedigree in her corner to this point providing her with outstanding guidance, including Australian football legend Heather Garriock and former Matildas player Catherine Cannuli.
“I would like to thank Catherine Cannuli, [Sydney University coach] Heather Garriock and [Westfield Sports High School coach] Rob Bradshaw for their ongoing mentorship and support,” Bugden revealed. “And to thank everyone else involved in this process as this is truly a dream come true.”