FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The million dollar question that creeps up on every student-athlete after their time spent in a uniform is over can be summed up in two words: what now? For Northern Arizona University women's soccer player Haley Wingender, whose life has revolved around the game since the ripe age of four, this question has been answered. With the many life lessons and skills gained from her time as a college athlete in her back pocket, the senior forward is well equipped for life's next adventure.
Wingender's accolades as a Lumberjack both on the soccer field and in the classroom have been nothing short of impressive. In 2015, she was a First Team All-Big Sky selection, a two-time Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week and claimed CoSIDA First Team Academic All-District honors. Not to mention, Wingender is ranked in the Top 10 in five separate career statistics in addition to holding the first place spot in points (29) and goals (12) scored in a single season. While it is easy to attribute her stat line to being an incredibly gifted athlete, the means to get there has been far from easy.
As if the transition from high school to college isn't challenging enough, Wingender's debut season was cut short after 13 games, undergoing what every college athlete hopes to avoid: a season-ending injury. A broken leg took her toughness and character to new heights as she rehabbed her way back to normalcy for what probably felt like eons.
"It's a whole different world from high school to college," Wingender said. "When you come to college, everyone is stronger, faster and better and the game is so much faster than you'd expect. I was just starting to find my place on the team before I got hurt. Then I had to learn how to walk, learn how to jog, learn how to kick a ball again; it was like starting all over again."
To put Wingender's career into perspective, she scored two goals and one assist for five points in 13 games played her freshman season. A year later and coming off a broken leg, she connected on five goals and assisted on three for 18 points. From her sophomore to junior season, Wingender made a huge jump, exploding for 12 goals and five assists for 29 points. She would produce an identical stat line in her final season, as well as starting and appearing in all 19 games for the 'Jacks.
"Going into my junior year, I worked really hard to get more fit so I could play more minutes," Wingender explained. "And obviously when you play more minutes, you're going to take more shots and hopefully have more goals. I'd say I just trusted the process [Coach] Andre [Luciano] had and the vision he had for our team. I think that really helped in the long run."
That same season, Northern Arizona secured its third Big Sky Championship in school history. Wingender was also a First Team All-Big Sky honoree and was tabbed the Big Sky Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player during the Lumberjacks' postseason run.
"It was a great feeling to win a championship," Wingender reflected. "We created our own luck that year by working so hard. I don't think it was easy and there were definitely teams who had more talent than we did, but the difference that season was definitely the chemistry on the team. Everyone was playing for each other. We all wanted to do whatever it took to win whether you were on the bench or at home watching; everyone bought in to a championship."
As someone who embodies a competitor in every sense of the word, it is no surprise Wingender was able to string together a spectacular four years while winning a championship along the way. So the question remains, just how did she do it?
Soccer has always been "her thing" despite taking a gamble at dance, basketball, golf and tennis growing up. It was the one sport she excelled at, but it also helped she spent much of her life on a soccer team who she also considered a group of close-knit friends.
"There are a lot of things that motivate me because I'm a really competitive person," Wingender said. "Whether I'm playing a board game, in school, or in classes with my teammates, I always want to be on top. I expect a lot of myself personally so in turn, I find the drive to build off my success. My family has played a big role in motivating me as well. They've been here since the beginning and have always made an effort to support me in everything I do. They push me to be better."
Wingender's competitive spirit will surely drive her for years to come as she pursues her dream of becoming a doctor one day. The senior will not only graduate in May with a 3.71 GPA, but will have done so majoring in Bio-medical Science. With a rigorous medical school schedule in front of her, Wingender will forever appreciate the opportunities she's been afforded and the things she has gained from being a student-athlete at NAU.
Despite a rather disappointing end to the 2015 campaign, and coming up shy of a Big Sky Tournament berth, Wingender sees the big picture.
"While I'm extremely bitter my freshman year got cut short and we didn't get to finish out my senior year like we all wanted to, I'm still grateful for my time here," Wingender commented. "My student-athlete experience has taught me to take ownership for everything I do. And with that, comes a level of mental toughness. People who don't play sports don't understand the strength you have to have to compete at this level. These are things I will definitely take with me into my future."
Since Wingender's time will no longer be filled with training, film, and road trips, she'll focus her energy on academics and applying for medical schools on the west coast. For any athlete who has invested their heart and soul into their first "true love," it can be a bittersweet time. But when asked if she would do it all over again, Wingender had no hesitations in saying she absolutely would.
"If you really love something, it doesn't matter how hard it is," Wingender said. Even though it was hard at times and on occasion you feel like you want to give up, I wouldn't change it for the world. I would definitely do it again, but probably try to do it better."
This attitude will serve Wingender well moving forward to the often cutthroat circumstances of medical school that lie ahead. Soccer always has and always will be a part of her life, but this time around, it will be a little less soccer and a little more time spent hitting the books. Even though Wingender will no longer lace up for the Lumberjacks, there's no doubt she'll be scoring goals in other ways beyond the soccer field.