Tessa Calabria: Gunning for personal redemption and team success in a comeback season

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.

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(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.”

2019 Forward Previews

A seven-player group of forwards light on goalscoring returns but full of potential lines up in 2019, with Nicholls State’s senior trio of Tessa Calabria, Kristy Helmers, and Shauni Reid looking to improve the Colonels’ attack. Meanwhile, Demi Koulizakis will look to make an impact in her senior year after winning Texas Tech’s Most Improved Player in 2018.

Indianna Asimus (Sophomore, Wyoming, Newcastle)

A starter in 9 of her 20 appearances in her freshman year, Asimus comes into the 2019 season looking to help fill the void left by fellow Australians, Caitlin Pickett, Annika Clayton and Jessie Gentle in the Wyoming attack. Wyoming may have finished as regular season champions in the Mountain West Conference in 2018, but several players from that team have now graduated and departed the program. With multiple forwards returning, how many additional starts Asimus picks up this year remains to be seen, but there will certainly be extra minutes available for the sophomore from Newcastle. Asimus also spent her offseason playing in the Northern NSW Premier League for Merewether United, which should provide her with a leg-up in terms of match fitness upon her return to Laramie for the upcoming season.

Sophie Bui (Freshman, Alabama State, Canberra)

Shelbi Vienna-Hallam may have left Alabama State after the 2017 season after stints as both a player and coach, but the Australian presence in Montgomery has returned with the signing of Tuggeranong United forward Sophie Bui. A club teammate of Nicholls State senior Kristy Helmers, Bui has made 29 NPL Capital Football appearances over the past two seasons, having banged in goals for fun at the youth level. Bui secured the Golden Boot at both Under 16 and Under 17 level in the Capital Football Women’s Premier League, and whilst goals haven’t been quite as forthcoming at the senior level, Bui clearly has pedigree and the Alabama State faithful will be hoping the freshman can bolster an attack that has lost a little bit of its bite since the graduation of a number of star forwards over the last couple of seasons, with 2018’s production of 24 goals paling in comparison to the previous year’s output of 39.

Tessa Calabria (Senior, Nicholls State, Adelaide)

A goalscoring assassin at the junior college level, injury prevented Calabria from making any real impact in her first season at Nicholls State, but the South Australian comes into her senior season with scoring pedigree in a team that is in desperate need of goals. The Colonels finished just 3-15 last season, posting a scoring average of less than a goal per game for the second consecutive season. Although Calabria tallied just a single goal in six injury-plagued appearances, the senior averaged a goal per game in her final season of junior college soccer whilst also tallying nine assists, and it may turn out that her ability to tee up teammates proves as valuable as her goalscoring prowess as the Colonels look to atone for a fairly dismal 2018.

Sarah Clark (Senior, Chicago State, Innisfail)

Having made eight appearances, including four starts, in her first Division I season in 2018, junior college transfer Clark will be hoping to put together a season with fewer interruptions in her final year of college soccer. A scorer of 8 goals in her only full season in junior college, Clark certainly has proven her ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and with Chicago State losing very few seniors from last year’s team, a bolstered roster should hopefully be able to provide Clark with the service she requires. However, a bolstered roster also means more competition for places, so the senior will have to be at the top of her game in pre-season to maintain a starting spot.

Kristy Helmers (Senior, Nicholls State, Canberra)

A tough season for Nicholls State on the whole saw Helmers tally just two goals in 2018, but the senior has proven in the past that she can bang in the goals and, with Tessa Calabria’s assistance, will be hoping to improve the Colonels’ output. Helmers registered six goals and five assists in her freshman year in 2016 whilst playing alongside fellow Aussie, Jess Coates, but goals have hardly been as forthcoming since that time as Nicholls State have struggled across the pitch. Whilst additional goals won’t be the antidote to the defensive problems that have also plagued the Colonels in recent times, Helmers is a proven goalscorer and will no doubt want to return to the form she has shown in previous years in her final season in Thibodaux.

Demi Koulizakis (Senior, Texas Tech, Sydney)

An option off the bench for most of her college career until last season, Koulizakis stepped up for Texas Tech in 2018 and now has the chance to put together a senior season that can set her up for a professional career, with a starting berth for the Red Raiders beckoning. Koulizakis enjoyed a strong spring campaign before returning to Sydney to spend her offseason playing NPLNSW for Sydney Olympic, a move that the senior believes will assist her in hitting the ground running for her final college season as she maintains her match fitness. How that preparation translates come August remains to be seen, but Koulizakis has certainly put herself in position to enjoy an outstanding senior year.

Shauni Reid (Senior, Nicholls State, Perth)

A crucial member of the Tyler Junior College side that reached the NJCAA Championship in 2016 and won the title in 2017, Reid tallied 5 goals and 4 assists in their championship-winning campaign, paving the way for the Western Australian to secure a spot on a Division I roster. Reid will be one of three Australian forwards on the Nicholls State roster this season alongside Kristy Helmers and Tessa Calabria, with the trio tasked with improving the Colonels’ lacklustre offence of recent seasons. Fortunately, Reid, like Calabria and Helmers, is adept at both teeing up teammates and scoring goals herself, providing new head coach Danny Free with plenty of options up front.