Where Are They Now?
by Jordan Holt (Spirits '98 ECNL)
They come and they go. They’re little, then they grow. Since San Juan Soccer Club first began producing top Northern California talent in 1978, young women have climbed the ranks through the age groups, becoming better soccer players and stronger individuals under San Juan’s guidance.
The progression San Juan has made over the past 41 years undeniable and incomparable to most clubs in California. On the girls side, San Juan joined the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), a select number of elite clubs in the nation presented with the opportunity to play on the largest college recruiting platform in the nation. San Juan has been a member of the league since the 2011-2012 season.
With the grand opening of the San Juan Soccer Complex in Summer 2018, many San Juan alumni had the chance to come back and see the future of the club, and reflect on their time as a San Juan Spirit with former teammates and coaches.
Several former San Juan players from San Juan’s 1998 ECNL team are amazed with the progression of the club, and are grateful that their roots were planted in the Carolina blue and white. Many of the 1998 girls went on to play college soccer, much to the credit of not only their passion and tenacity, but also because of the opportunity both San Juan and ECNL offered to get noticed by the next level. A close-knit group of friends from the San Juan 1998 ECNL team reflected on their soccer careers now that they’re well into college athletics.
“What I miss about club soccer is the people,” said Jess Brandt, a San Juan ‘98 ECNL alum. “I played with girls for over eight years who became my sisters and my best friends. I miss being able to step on the field with them and enjoy the game we love together.”
Brandt’s journey with San Juan ultimately led her to play DII soccer at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. As a Mercy Maverick, Brandt achieved numerous Rookie of the Week accolades. Her sophomore season consisted of 22 games, 22 starts, a conference title, and a debut in the NCAA DII Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
Brandt is now preparing for her fourth and final season with the Mavericks as she pursues a degree in Media Studies and Broadcast Journalism.
“My expectations of myself were to go in, work hard, earn a starting spot, and hopefully compete for a national championship, Brandt said. “I accomplished all three of these things in my first two years. It was an experience I will never forget, and I am so grateful for.”
While Brandt’s career has gone better than she expected, college athletics has proven to be a test for many.
Abilene Christian University(ACU) junior and San Juan ‘98 ECNL alum Michelle Mulrooney isn’t where she began her college soccer career.
“I attended UC Davis as a freshman and played my freshman year of soccer at that school,” Mulrooney said. “I soon realized after season that the environment in which I was playing in was not what I had imagined.”
Mulrooney transferred to ACU for her sophomore season, and continues to play for the Wildcats, now entering her senior season. Mulrooney was named to the First Team All-Southland Conference, First Team All-Southland Academic Team, and to the Southland Conference All-Tournament Team, while her team claimed the Southland Conference Championship and berth into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
“I never imagined myself moving to Texas for college, being so far from home and not knowing anyone that went to the school,” Mulrooney said. “I had trust that this was God’s plan for me and I was confident in my decision (to transfer). Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith.”
Mulrooney is pursuing a degree in Business Management.
About 570 miles southeast from Abilene is Lafayette, Louisiana, where Ashley Newland attends the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Newland is also a San Juan ECNL ‘98 alum and a Business Management major, getting ready for her redshirt junior year with the Rajin’ Cajuns.
“My journey has been all over the place,” Newland said. “It started off well and was quickly turned upside down during my freshman year with a knee injury. It’s been a hard battle to get back on my determined path but right now I’m finally back on it with the help of hard work and a new coaching staff.”
Change has been a daunting obstacle in Newland’s career, but she has found the strength to not only endure, but overcome adversity.
“The player I know I am and was always inside me, but stayed hidden when I started doubting myself,” Newland said. “I miss the way I played with my best friends (at San Juan) and how we just knew every movement each person was going to do before it even happened.”
Newland encourages young San Juan players to go above and beyond what is expected of them, and to always have faith in their abilities.
Oklahoma junior Kristina O’Donnell is preparing to tackle her senior season as a midfielder with the Sooners. O’Donnell was awarded on the All-Big 12 Freshman Team her first year in 2016, and made it to the second round of the DI NCAA Tournament.
“The best part of college soccer is knowing that I achieved something that I was dreaming for since I was a little girl,” O’Donnell said. “With a few bumps in the road, my soccer journey has gone exactly how I planned. I didn’t plan on having surgery in college but there’s always going to be a few mishaps in the road. You just have to go with the flow and bounce back even better.”
O’Donnell had surgery for compartment syndrome following her sophomore season. She recognized that college soccer had become more of a job than everyday fun with good friends.
“A piece of advice I’d give young San Juan players is to enjoy everything that you have right now--your team, your coach, your family. Everyone is all there. I miss having my parents watch me every game and just having my family watch me play in practice and in games. It made a difference.”
O’Donnell was with San Juan for over eight years before beginning with the Sooners. She is working towards a degree in Communications.
Of the five friends, Rachel Ribeiro is the closest to where all the girls began. Rachel is a junior at the University of Nevada, Reno. While Ribeiro does not play college soccer, she stays involved with the game when she can.
“I played intramurals with some friends at school and in a sorority philanthropic soccer tournament,” Ribeiro said. “My sorority has won every year I’ve been on the team.”
Ribeiro remembers her time at San Juan as endless memories of joy. “I miss seeing my best friends everyday,” she said. “I made so many amazing memories with these people who were not just teammates, but they really became my family. Nothing is the same as suiting up in my uniform I was so proud to wear and getting the high off competing other players or scoring a goal in a big game.”
These five friends took five very different paths decided by countless factors. All beginning in the central valley of California, they now reside in five different states, chasing their dreams and degrees. San Juan offers a common ground for them to reconnect even when the great distance and change becomes an obstacle.
As the club and it’s players continue to progress and experience change, San Juan hopes to be a place alumni can proudly call home.