FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – As the conference soccer season winds down and the stakes become even higher, what may get lost in the mix of statistics, scouting reports and the win column is just how much a team is fueled by their teammates. Rest assured, in scanning the Northern Arizona University women's soccer team roster, you are indeed seeing double. When it comes to the world of college athletics, the obstacles and challenges make the victories sweet. But doing it alongside your own sister? The victory is even sweeter. Cierra and Carly Gamble and Ari and Alexia Gonzalez are all in this together.
It can almost be expected that sisters as close in age as the Gamble and Gonzalez sisters fight from time to time. But for the Gonzalez sisters, not even sharing the same bedroom and clothes growing up was enough to separate them. In fact, in Ari's eyes, Alexia was more than just a big sister but a personal hair stylist.
"I pulled her into the bathroom with me, took some scissors and cut all her bangs off for no reason; I completely ruined her hair," Alexia said. "But Ari came out and asked our mom how she looked afterwards."
Horrific haircuts, arguments and minuscule cat fights aside, Ari and Alexia have always had a special bond from the time they were kids.
"My dad would take us to Sam's Club when we were younger and always seemed to lose us," Alexia said, before Ari took it upon herself to explain.
"I was just a little baby that she always had to take care of, she [Alexia] was like my second mom."
While Cierra Gamble was not necessarily tending to a crying little sister in the grocery store, she did not have much of a choice but to get along with her younger sister, either. Among her teammates, Cierra is known for her quick wit and sense of humor. Needless to say, she successfully shared her creativity with Carly from the very beginning.
"I remember being on a hike with our family and Carly and I would hold hands," Cierra reflected. "My parents thought it was so cute, but we were actually taking turns closing our eyes to lead each other off the trail."
"It was nothing vicious, though."
Little did Cierra know she would pave yet another path, this time less jokingly, for her younger sister years later. Ari and Alexia are each one of four Gonzalez sisters, while Carly and Cierra are the only kids in the family. Both the Gamble and Gonzalez sisters started playing soccer from the age of four. They say it is all they have ever known; it's in their blood. There is no denying that soccer has undoubtedly brought their relationships to new heights.
The beauty of family is that you simply cannot change it, but that doesn't mean it's always pretty. The Gonzalez and Gamble sisters embrace the highs and lows that come with protecting their own. Fighting back some emotion, Alexia explained her role as the protective big sister.
"If I ever hear bad things said about Ari, it affects me way more than it affects her. I'm super protective because I don't ever want to see her hurt. It puts a lot of stress on me, unfortunately."
"There are a lot of mistakes to be made in college, and I don't want her [Carly] to make the same ones I have," Cierra chimed in. "So I'm just always watching out for her."
On the field, the story isn't much different.
"I like playing with Ari, but it does make things a lot harder," Alexia said. "Every little mistake makes me upset. If someone else were to make a mistake it's okay- but when she [Ari] makes it- it stands out."
"I'm definitely more critical now than I used to be," Cierra said. "I want her [Carly] to succeed so I'm harder on her now than I was growing up."
On the other end of the spectrum is the role as the younger sister, as the sister who is lucky enough to have someone to look up to, whether it's in the classroom or on the soccer field.
"Alexia has always been my role model," Ari said. "She's smart, really good at soccer and has been through a lot, but has stayed so positive about it all."
It is no surprise that Cierra and Alexia had some influence on Ari and Carly's decision to attend and play soccer at NAU. From cheering in the stands at Lumberjack stadium, to attending summer camps, there was something about Lumberjack Country- more than just their big sisters- that the two could not possibly turn down.
"I was pretty set on not coming here," Ari said. "But every single time I visited Alexia and as the recruitment process went on, I started liking NAU even more. Obviously her being here helps a lot. I never get home sick with her here. She did affect my decision a little bit, but it wasn't everything."
"Coming out to watch Cierra play, I really fell in love with the school, the campus and the team," Carly added. "It was an easy transition because it's like a home away from home."
Head Coach Andre Luciano also shared some insight on the dynamics of having two sets of sisters on his roster.
"We didn't recruit them solely because of their last name," Luciano said. "All four of them are in much different roles. I think the most important thing is that we don't compare them to each other, because they are all very different in their personalities and the types of positions they play."
While the Gonzalez and Gamble sisters are the only sets of sisters by blood, the remainder of the women's soccer team would argue differently. They would say they are all sisters.
"You get so close with everyone on the team that you do feel like sisters," Cierra noted. "Sometimes you get in fights but at the end of the day, we love each other and would do anything for each other."
It is indeed a home away from home a home- a home that epitomizes sisterhood in every sense of the word. So perhaps it is more than just the Gonzalez and Gamble sisters in this together. The women's soccer team is all in this together as the journey towards another Big Sky title draws to an end.