Three years ago, Candice Parziani wasn’t even thinking about playing soccer in college. Now, the Lewis and Clark Community College striker is fresh off a 31-goal season in which she helped lead the team to the NJCAA Division I National Championship, in which the Explorers reached the semi-finals. All it took was one experience for the Queensland-based forward to decide that this was the pathway for her.
“I started thinking about going when I went on a tour to the Surf Cup in San Diego in 2017,” Parziani recalls. “I played against top tier teams over there in that competition, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve just followed up from there.”
Fortunately, in Parziani’s corner was Gary French. The list of names that the former Palm Beach and current Souths United coach has helped make the move to college includes Harriet Withers, Nyomi Devine, Kiri Dale, Ellie Papalexiou, and Anastasia McCleary. That’s just at the NCAA Division I level, though. Playing under French at Souths United meant playing in a team littered with college players from all levels, which gave Parziani plenty of people to gain insight from.
“I mean a lot of girls gave me a lot of insight, because I had (current Rocky Mountain College player) Rita Marshall, (former Georgia Gwinnett player) Amy Morland and Kiri, and there were so many girls just to grab so much information off.
“But one of my other coaches actually helped me go over, Sam Smith from Gold Coast Football Academy. But they were all great – so much insight into all the visa stuff and just trying to get over in general, and what to email and stuff like that.
“It was a lot easier to understand all the different levels and they were talking about the divisions. Obviously, I went to junior college, that was the best option for me. You know, they said if you go to a big school, you’re probably going to sit on the bench for the first two years as a freshman and a sophomore. So, you know, you go to a junior college, you’re going to be able to play the whole time.”
Despite having offers from two four-year schools at NCAA Division II and NAIA level, Parziani chose the junior college route, and it couldn’t have worked out much better. The freshman banged home 31 goals in 20 games for Lewis and Clark, and whilst illness forced her to sit out the NJCAA Division I National Championship, her contribution to the team played a significant part in their success on her way to an All-American nomination from United Soccer Coaches.
“I was so surprised by what I did while I was over there, and everything that happened. It’s just surreal, still, I don’t feel like I did that, but I’m stoked that it’s happened, like it’s changed my life, so I’m very happy.
Our school had a stadium built for our coach, he’s been there for years and he’s incredible, Tim Rooney, just a legend, really. And the stadium, it’s unbelievable. The first time I went down there, it’s hard to believe that I was there, and this is our stadium, it’s such a sense of pride, to be where I got to.
“We had a great season as a team as a whole. It was crazy. As I said, I still don’t believe it happened. There was a game where we played our rivals, Southwestern Illinois College, and it was a drawn game. We had a lot of people in the stands, and I ended up scoring the golden goal in overtime, which was incredible.
“I remember the whole thing, hitting it and just staring at it like ‘That went in, we just won!’ Everyone ran at me, my goalie ran the whole field, she threw up on her way because she doesn’t run that far. It was so insane.
“I finished 7th top goalscorer in JUCO, which was also unbelievable. I didn’t get to play nationals so I missed three of the biggest games of our season, and it’s just crazy. Our offence was the third best in goals scored per game. I was only the second-leading goalscorer (on the team). My striking partner, she’s from South Africa* and she won national player of the year; she’s crazy. She scored, I think 57, so together we scored 90 goals and we had 50 assists or something. I don’t know, it was crazy.
“And the friendships you make over there, it’s lifelong.”
Whilst the season was incredible enough in and of itself, junior college has provided an experience for Parziani that perhaps doesn’t exist to the same degree at all levels of the college game: the chance to play alongside and against players from all around the world on a regular basis. Aside from the lifelong friendships Parziani talks about, the fascination that the local American players have with accents make for some great stories.
On the field, they hear my accent, if I was talking to my teammates, they’d be like “Where are you from?” Even the Americans, they’re so interested. We’re on the field, they’re like ‘Where are you from?’ and I’m like ‘We’re playing a game, come on.’
But I get girls from Africa, Mexican girls, Spanish girls, girls from England, that I heard speaking on the field and I’m like ‘I know your accent!’
There was one girl we played, she was from New South Wales somewhere. The girls came off, I think I was off for five minutes, and I came back on, and they’re going ‘That girl’s Australian, listen to her accent, we love it, it’s the same as yours.’ And I’m like “Oh my God!’
“They’re so fascinated by it, they love our accents. They always try to mimic my accent, but they can never get it,” Parziani laughs.
It may seem as though everything ran smoothly for Parziani in her first year of collegiate play, but originally, the junior college star wasn’t all that enamoured with where she was heading. That quickly changed, as a successful first season potentially opened up more options when the time comes to head to a four-year college in 2021.
“I was really surprised with the junior college route actually, because I honestly wasn’t that thrilled that I wasn’t going straight to a four-year school. But the junior college route’s such a great way to develop yourself and work your way into the American way of football, because they play so differently. And it’s so much faster.
“I played all games this season besides nationals because I was sick, but you know, it was good for me. I played full games, and I got to experience so much in that one season that I’ve had already, so I think it’s great.
“I’ve always aimed for D1, the hope was that I was going to get there. I’ve got a lot of work to put in, and I still do, but now after my first season and making the All-American team, it adds a bit more to my confidence and belief in myself that I can go D1.
“I definitely wouldn’t turn down whatever I got. I’m aiming high, but whatever I get after JUCO is what’s meant to be, and I would have so many regrets if I didn’t do this, I feel like you never know until you try it.”
Of course, any plans were thrown into disarray as the COVID-19 pandemic not only closed colleges across the nation, but also cancelled summer pro-am leagues, whilst the 2020 college season remains in limbo at this stage. That forced Parziani home, completely changing her plans for the offseason, and also potentially hampering her chances to showcase her talents to NCAA Division I coaches.
“Our athletic director advised all of the internationals for all the sports to go home. The school closed, so everything was online, there wasn’t really any point in staying there alone, when we could be home with our families,” Parziani explains. I didn’t want to leave, but I’m happy to be home. I wanted to stay, but I didn’t want to put that on any of my teammates, to have me.
“So, I’ve been back for about two months now, and I’ve just been working a lot on my fitness, mainly running, running nearly every day, beach runs – killer, doing that. I’ve been doing ball work by myself, just against a wall. There’s a lot on social media, they give you a lot of drills that you can use and adapt to against a wall.
“My grandparents help me out, just finding a goal that’s open and just practicing what I need to practice, and they go and fetch the balls and stuff. It’s been hard, because we don’t know when it goes back, you just keep working on what you can so you’re as ready as you can be when it does go back.
“It’s a very uncertain situation. It’s been playing on my mind; I had good first season stats, but our team didn’t get much footage. They videoed the boys but they didn’t video the girls. That kind of disadvantaged us a lot, so I don’t have much to send to people. So for scholarship-wise, I don’t know how that’s going to go for me at the moment. So, I’m really hoping that the season goes ahead, but yeah, we’re just not sure. I’m just going to have to figure it out, I guess.”
However, regardless of whether the college season goes ahead, Parziani looks set to have at least one other opportunity to show that she belongs at the highest level of college soccer. A chance encounter with a WPSL team gave Parziani the kind of opportunity that remains open beyond the uncertainty that all collegiate athletes are currently experiencing.
“I’d been contacted by (a WPSL team) in Minnesota called Rochester United; we kind of hit a stump and he was busy recruiting somewhere else. So, I went to the St. Louis Lions trial just because my whole apartment was going, so I was like ‘why not?’
“And I ended up making that team! I didn’t expect it, and it’s super crazy, like I’m not even meant to be back (in Australia), I’m meant to still be over there and I’m meant to be preseason for WPSL, which is crazy. but they postponed it and said that I’m still welcome in the team whenever I come back.
“I emailed them – because they said it was postponed – I actually got sent home to Australia, so I won’t be with you for this friendly season that they’re having. And they were like ‘No, no, no, whenever you come back, that’s fine.’ I was like, ‘Ok!’”
With strike partner Boitumelo Rabele and her 57 goals having moved on from the junior college ranks, Parziani will lead the line as she looks to improve on 2019’s impressive tally of 31 goals. Having already put together one outstanding season, a potential season of WPSL alongside a second junior college campaign could send Parziani’s career to another level.
If she thinks things have been crazy, they may just be about to get a whole lot crazier.
*Author’s Note: Parziani’s teammate Boitumelo Rabele is originally from Maseru, Lesotho.