Photo courtesy of Sam Borozon
(From left to right): Cassidy McLean, Syrina Lopez, Haley Wingender, Natalie Gilbertson, Sarah Pate, Alexia Gonzalez
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The long line of history for six of this year's soccer freshmen dates back almost a decade, ranging from high school rivals on the pitch to club teammates. For all the history and memories shared, these six freshmen stand just a mere three days away from adding the next significant date onto their timeline together – Aug. 17 – the date of their collegiate debuts.
For freshmen Natalie Gilbertson, Alexia Gonzalez, Syrina Lopez, Cassidy McLean, Sarah Pate and Haley Wingender, Friday will be not be an ordinary first game. For these six freshmen, the start of their Northern Arizona Lumberjack careers will take them right back to where it all began in their hometown of Las Vegas when they play UNLV on Friday.
"I'm really excited for everyone to see what I've newly joined (here at NAU)," Wingender said. "I want everyone to see how good our team is and that we all came here together to prove a point as a unit. We want to show our hometown what they produced."
With friends and family in the stands and familiar faces in the opposing Rebel uniforms, there will sure to be a lot of excitement when they step on the field at Peter Johann Memorial Field.
But for some, it will be a chance to prove themselves. Not every one of the six was recruited by the hometown university. Others have doubted their decision to attend NAU.
"A lot of people have doubted NAU," Gilbertson said. "We've gotten plenty of comments like, 'what is that, who are they?' But we're a lot better than people think we are."
"I think that a lot of people doubted NAU and questioned our decisions," Wingender added. "It'll be good to show all the players that we played with and against that we chose NAU for a reason. We know it's a good school and we know we're going to be a good team."
The bond between the six Las Vegas natives goes back to their recently completed high school careers. Having each played against each other's schools on a yearly basis as part of the state 4A division, the most fierce competitions took place in the state championship finals.
In 2009, Gilbertson's Centennial High School got the best of Pate's Coronado High School. Two years later as juniors, McLean's Green Valley High School denied Gilbertson and her squad at Centennial a chance for their second state championship in three years. Then earlier this spring, McLean found herself on the losing end as Wingender's Bishop Gorman High School dethroned Green Valley as Nevada's 4A best.
The camaraderie between the six of these girls is apparent as Gonzalez, of Liberty High School, and Lopez, of Silverado High School, are quick to jokingly point out that they were left out of the state championship conversation. Not to be outdone, Gonzalez adds that her high school is the reigning Academic State Champions.
Even when competing against one another on the field, the six had the opportunity to play with each other as part of the Las Vegas Premier soccer club. Coached by Ivan Farris, a former club coach of NAU head coach Andre Luciano, the ladies won numerous state championships together with Las Vegas Premier as well as several other tournament championships.
With the NAU connection between Luciano, also a Las Vegas native, and Farris, it was only a matter of time until Luciano spotted each of his new Lumberjacks. What started off as conversations slowly turned into commitments beginning with Gilbertson. But even with Gilbertson in the fold, the others continued to weigh their options.
"We didn't choose here because Natalie chose here, but it was more because Andre was coming out to our games and he was talking to our club coaches," Pate said. "He started noticing us on the team and we started talking to him about NAU. After looking at our other options, we started thinking more about coming to NAU and it was a bonus that we had six of us all going to the same school."
Their other options couldn't match the comfort level of being around friends they knew could bring.
"At first I had no idea what (Flagstaff) was," Wingender said. "When Natalie said she was looking here, I had no idea what to expect. Once Andre started talking to us, I felt more comfortable looking at the school because it felt like it was the place to be."
"Knowing that all of us could go here together, we wouldn't be by ourselves," Lopez added. "We all get along so well."
The end result: six young women with decorated high school careers making their way from Las Vegas to Flagstaff. The six freshmen from the Las Vegas Premier soccer club team are the most girls from the same club team in one recruiting class since 2007, when Luciano brought in five girls from the South Bank Ladybugs.
Although they all won't be able to play immediately – Lopez, McLean and Pate are currently recovering from ACL injuries – the excitement of the opportunity to play with each other at the collegiate level is palpable.
"I can't wait to get back on the field," McLean said. "I'm excited to be here with these girls."
Come Friday, the Vegas connection will be even more prevalent between the Lumberjacks and the host Rebels. UNLV has seven more players from the Las Vegas/Henderson area and several of them have connections with the NAU six. Erika Hanuscin was a high school classmate of McLean's at Green Valley, Amanda Kaufman was a high school teammate of Wingender at Bishop Gorman and Gilbertson played with both Julie Owens and Faith Johannes at Centennial. But there isn't a more familiar face than Addy Guida, who was not only a classmate of Pate's at Coronado and a club teammate to all six of the freshmen, but she's also a longtime childhood friend of Gonzalez.
"I've known Addy since I was four years old when I moved to Vegas," Gonzalez said. "We've been on the same team since I was four. Our families are super close, so it'll be exciting to be on the field playing against each other."
Regardless of the outcome of their first collegiate game on Friday, Gilbertson, Gonzalez, Lopez, McLean, Pate and Wingender have not only the rest of the season to look forward to, but the rest of their careers.
Their road may have originated in Las Vegas, but it's just beginning in Flagstaff and there's no doubt that they'll do it together just as they've always done.
"Being away from your family is obviously hard, but it gets a lot easier knowing that I've got my sisters, whom I've known for six years, and they're basically my family," Gilbertson said. "I think coming in with my best friends made it an easier transition as compared to going to a school where I knew no one on the team. It's a good support system, Flagstaff is close to home, and it's just a good place to be for all of us."