Tillsonburg's Victoria Kyriakopoulos will be playing her soccer stateside this fall after signing full scholarship with the Western Michigan University Broncos in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The seventeen-year-old holding midfield and defensive centre back, who was one of 15 Stoney Creek Soccer Club players to earn scholarships, made it official on Feb. 7 at Player's Paradise in Hamilton.
"It's really rare to get that many girls (on the same team) a scholarship, so we were all so amazed," said Kyriakopoulos. "We really all just played for each other on the field. And girls that didn't have a scholarship yet, we kind of worked for them on the field, really let them have their opportunities. Because this team was just such a great team for having team spirit and really being there for each other. And our coach also did amazing work, he would get coaches out to our games and really try to bring the universities to watch us play, which helped a lot.
"We just had a really quality team. We would train intensely for these moments, so everyone on the team deserved their scholarships."
Only two did not receive scholarships. One received an offer but turned it down, one did not want to go to school in the States.
"I've never been on a team like this where you just substitute a player out and they can do the exact same job, fill the role, just as well. There weren't weak links. You could put anyone in the position, and they would do their job and do it well. We were all able to play at that level. That definitely helped because when players got tired you didn't have to worry about, 'oh, now we have a weak link right now...'
How much time the defender/midfielder gets in her freshmen year will be determined at camp, and as the fall season progresses.
"Freshmen do play, but obviously the seniors on the team will play more. It all just depends how good you are. If you work hard in practices and earn your spot, then you'll play.
"I think this year they're graduating seven seniors, and they're starters, so there's definitely going to be room for us (seven players were signed on the 7th) to come in and, hopefully, get playing time and really push for those spots."
Kyriakopoulos, coming off a torn ACL injury, anticipates being 100 per cent going into the preseason. She injured her knee in the late summer, hyper-extending her leg at a camp at Western Michigan.
"We were just scrimmaging. I went up for a head ball, and when I came down I heard that 'pop'. It happened right in front of my coaches. Right away I was kind of scared because I was already committed at this point."
She started thinking, 'will this affect my scholarship?'
"That's what I was really worried about. You hear horror stories of girls doing stuff like this, and then they get their scholarships taken away. But my coaches reassured me the whole time, it won't change. And it's such a common injury now in girls soccer that they've seen it and they've seen girls come back stronger than they were before. So right now I'm just focusing on the recovery part and getting to where I need to be to play.
"Mentally it's been kind of hard, not being able to be on the field and doing what I love, but it's all just a process and it will take time. I know I'll come back from it. I'm still in the gym and lifting weights and stuff, so that's helping to keep my focused."
Kyriakopoulos, who started her competitive minor soccer in Tillsonburg, went on to play in London. Her scholarship pursuit took her to Stoney Creek for two seasons.
"Mostly I was looking for a better team and they had better training and more resources available. I really wanted to try to get a scholarship, and play NCAA Division I. The coach was known for it, and the team went down to the States a lot - that was what I was looking for."
And that's what Stoney Creek did, making four or five trips to the States each year, including New Jersey and North Carolina.
"Mostly what we've been doing is going down to the States doing showcases, or playing against university teams down there that our coaches arranged," said Kyriakopoulos, noting they defeated Florida and tied Seton Hall. "All the games, we've been able to compete."
The team typically played three major American tournaments, arranged games against other elite teams, and university teams.
"It was basically all year round, we didn't really have an off-season."
Kyriakopoulos first started thinking about playing Division I in Grade 9, but didn't get serious about it until Grade 10.
"I've always been serious about soccer, I just didn't know what I wanted to do with it. Then once I got more information on what scholarships actually are, and what NCAA Division I is, it really pushed me to make that my goal and want it."
She had interest from many schools, visiting seven including Seton Hall (New Jersey), Wagner (New York), and Central Michigan before choosing Western Michigan.
"It was a really, really long process. So we'd go down, spend the weekend with the team. Usually tour the campus and then a lot of times you would stay overnight with one of the freshmen. They'd show you around and what it's like."
She made a second visit to Western Michigan, and that's when she decided she wanted to sign with the Broncos.
"That was the only school I went back for, then once I went back I made my final decision.
"When I was being recruited, we watched them practice and their touch on the ball was just so good, and their style of play was really appealing to the way I played. And the whole team was just so welcoming. When we were touring the campus, it just really felt like a place that I could call home for the next four years. The whole environment, their whole athletic program was just so hyped up and everyone had the Bronco spirit. It was just really something that I wanted to be a part of."
Kalamazoo, west of Detroit on Interstate 94, is about a four-and-a-half to five-hour drive from Tillsonburg, relatively close to her hometown.
"That kind of played into it. When they play Buffalo, it's like only two hours away. I wanted to be close enough to home that my parents could still come and watch me play," said Kyriakopoulos, adding with a laugh, "but far enough away that I'm doing my own thing."
While there is emphasis on soccer, students on scholarships need to maintain quality grades. Not a problem for Kyriakopoulos.
"Soccer has always helped me manage my time and, believe it or not, I think having soccer in my life has made me do better in school. So no, I don't think it negatively impacts me. They have a lot of resources for the athletes available, too, if you need tutoring or help."
Kyriakopoulos, who graduates this spring from Glendale High School, will play this summer in League1 Ontario, a semi-pro women's league.
"We all signed for League1, and our coach is going to be the assistant coach of that team too. So it's kind of like our whole team is moving into a new league, so we'll all still be playing together."