Living the Dream
By Ben Badua
I. THE AMHERST CONNECTION
Back in her hometown of Sudbury, Mass., Kate Sisk ’14 of the Amherst women’s soccer team was spending her Thanksgiving break studying for exams. “Our season had just ended,” recalls Sisk, who helped the Lord Jeffs set a program record with 20 wins en route to a NESCAC championship and national quarterfinal appearance. “I was feeling pretty empty.”
Sitting in a library on a rainy November day, Sisk’s phone began to ring. On the other end was Brandon Saldana ’13, the Amherst men’s reserve goalkeeper who had recently taken on a starring role on the Puerto Rican senior national team.
Stepping outside to take the call, Sisk paced under an overhang before walking in circles around the lobby. Saldana explained that the Puerto Rican women’s U20 team was looking for players as it prepared for the final stage of Caribbean qualifiers for the 2012 CONCACAF Championship in Cuba. Would Sisk be interested? Absolutely. Would it be alright if Saldana passed her information along to the coaches? Definitely.
Immediately after getting off the phone, Sisk excitedly called home. She soon got another call, this time from Rene Echevarria, a stateside recruiter for the men’s team. Before she knew it, Sisk had put her studying aside and began making plans for a week-long tryout in Puerto Rico.
In late October, Sisk celebrated the Jeffs' NESCAC quarterfinal overtime win on a snow covered Hitchcock Field.
II. DECEMBER TO REMEMBER
Mid-December can be overwhelming for any Amherst student dealing with exams and papers. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, Sisk felt that pressure and had a once-in-a-lifetime tryout hanging over her head to boot. “Luckily, I only had one exam to take [during the time I was scheduled to be in Puerto Rico],” says Sisk. “My professor let me take it early. I just had to write two final papers.”
The second Amherst soccer player in as many months to make an appearance at the Bayamon Football Club’s training facility, Sisk didn’t know what to expect when she arrived in Puerto Rico on Dec. 16. But when training began the next day, she soon found her routine. Wake up, eat, play soccer. Eat again, play more soccer. Spend time with friends, work on final papers, go to bed. Repeat. “It was almost like an intense, extended soccer camp,” she says. “It was really enjoyable.”
Most of the players Sisk was training with were from Puerto Rico, with only a handful from the States. Knowing the roster would be trimmed to 20, the sessions were understandably competitive. “It was much different than any other tryout I’ve been to,” says Sisk. “Even though I didn’t know if I was going to be selected, I was immediately welcomed into the team mindset. We were training for a tournament. We were already working towards Cuba, even before the final roster was decided.”
Sisk’s week-long tryout came and went as quickly as the opportunity had first presented itself. With five hours of soccer a day, sandwiched between frantic bouts of paper-writing and a sometimes challenging search for internet (thank God for 3G), Sisk didn’t have a lot of time to worry about the impression she was making. All she knew is that she’d done well enough to warrant a flight back.
After spending three days with family, she headed back to Puerto Rico the day after Christmas. At the training facility, things were more intense than they were during tryouts. While the focus was still on Cuba, there was more talk about the two other teams they’d face in Havana.
Struggling to get into the lineup at first (and finding some difficulty keeping up with her teammates’ Spanish), Sisk increasingly found herself amongst the team’s starters towards the end of the training. Head coach Jeaustin Campos’ clearer, slower speech allowed her to absorb everything, and in the event she did miss something there was a simple solution: politely ask someone to repeat it.
Over time, Sisk began to familiarize herself with the nuances of Campos’ 3-5-2 system. Eventually carving out a niche in the center midfield, a more comfortable Sisk even got some time off to unwind. She visited San Juan and felt a connection to the stories she’d grown up hearing from her grandfather. Sisk had always wanted to come to Puerto Rico, and she was finally getting a chance to experience a part of her culture firsthand.
Campos even took a break from the two-a-days to throw a barbeque for his players. With family and friends in toe and with drums in the team house, the squad played music, sang songs and enjoyed the calm before the proverbial storm. At the end of the night, Campos took the opportunity to address his team. “He said he believed in us,” says Sisk. “We had to keep working hard. Soon, we’d be in Cuba.”
III. WELCOME TO HAVANA
Sitting in a team meeting after an early training session and walk-through at the stadium in Havana, Campos announced the starting lineup for the team’s first game. Sisk was in it. “I knew I had a chance of starting,” says Sisk. “I just didn’t know what position.”
In anticipation of their game against Trinidad & Tobago, Sisk and her roommate drew pictures of soccer fields late into the night. How are we supposed to move offensively? Defensively? Who do we look for on a pass? With questions still looming and game time less than 24 hours away, the duo didn’t hesitate to reach out to Campos, even paying him a visit at 11:30 p.m. “He just very calmly went over what we needed to do and told us to go to sleep.”
The next morning Sisk and her teammates woke up to the sunrise, ate breakfast and boarded a bus for the stadium. After getting changed they headed onto the field for a light warm-up. Back in the locker room, posted on the walls were motivational quotes from back at the team house in Puerto Rico. As Campos paced back and forth, the players could hear Trinidad & Tobago getting pumped up through the paper thin walls.
After a fairly standard check of shin guards, jerseys and cleats (and… nails?) with the referees, it was time to go out. First, there was a prayer. Then, a song. As the starters for both teams lined up next to each other in the tunnel, it began to sink in for Sisk. “I was really happy [when I walked out of the tunnel]. It was just one of those moments where I realized how much I loved soccer.”
After singing the Puerto Rican national anthem (another moment she’d been looking forward to since hearing her grandfather’s stories) Sisk fell into her personal routine. On came the lucky red headband that she’s had since her very first travel team (and to her delight matched the team’s colors). Focused on the game, she made sure she was all stretched out before some last minute hydrating. From there, it was just soccer, like every other game she’s ever played in—except, she was speaking in Spanish.
After a scoreless first half, Puerto Rico broke through with the game’s first goal. Racing to her teammates, Sisk took the time to celebrate. “It was a really sick goal,” recalls Sisk. “Just outside the 18, to the right of goal, at an angle, into the upper 90, far post. It was a golazo!”
The goal had given Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish. After the final horn, Sisk and her teammates sang, took pictures with the flag and joined in a prayer. “It was a little different culturally,” says Sisk. “I feel like a lot of times [in the States] there’s a feeling of not wanting to celebrate too much. It was by no means unsportsmanlike, but it’s okay to be joyful when goals are scored and to really celebrate it.”
Sisk leaned on her experiences as a Lord Jeff while playing right back in a qualifying game against Cuba.
IV. THE SHOWDOWN
Later that day, Sisk and her teammates got one more chance to celebrate their ‘golazo’, while watching highlights on TV at the hotel. It was even better than they remembered, but they had little time to revel in the win. Not with their much anticipated showdown with Cuba on the horizon, just two days away. They had never recorded a win over their hosts, which is why they spent so much time, during tryouts and training, concentrating on their Caribbean neighbors to the west.
Complicating matters for Puerto Rico was the loss of one of their defenders, who received a red card against Trinidad and was ineligible to play. The loss forced Campos to make adjustments to the 3-5-2 formation he’d drilled into his players’ heads, and he looked to Sisk to help shore up the backline. “At that point, I knew I was going to be playing right back,” Sisk said. “We had seen Cuba play against Guyana, so I knew the girl I was going to be marking. I had to be ready.”
Sisk knew that one of her opponent’s favorite maneuvers was to kick the ball up in the air and receive it on the other side. To practice, she had a teammate simulate the move, over and over. After going over her responsibilities one more time at a team meeting on the eve of the game, Sisk headed to bed. “I dreamt that night about playing against Number 13,” said Sisk. “She was good. The funny thing was, [the next day] when the game started, it was Number 14 on my side and Number 13 was on the opposite end.”
Unfazed, Sisk went about her business, but soon enough the two forwards switched sides, bringing Number 13 onto her half of the pitch. That’s when Sisk leaned on her preparation in the days prior and her experience at Amherst the most. Playing a new position opposite one of Cuba’s most dangerous scorers, Sisk recalled the advice of Amherst teammate Allison Dorey ’12: ‘You get high, you show her the line and you know if you’re faster, you’ll be fine.’
“I wasn’t sure if I was faster,” said a laughing Sisk. “But I just stuck to what she said and what Coach [Jen] Hughes taught us about defense. I would say I was able to shut her down. We ended up tying 1-1, but it was celebrated because it put us in a really good spot [to qualify]. It was a good result and our coaches were proud of us.”
V. LASTING MEMORIES
Two days later, Guyana played the role of spoiler and handed Puerto Rico a 1-0 loss. As the game’s seconds ticked away, Sisk’s rollercoaster ride with the national team came to a disappointing end on the final day of competition. “I felt it was really in our hands to win,” said Sisk. “If the game had gone on another 10 minutes maybe we would have.”
It wasn’t the ending Sisk and her teammates wanted, but Campos was proud of them. In the locker room the players gathered in a circle, and tears were followed by words of encouragement. All of the girls spoke up. They talked about how amazing their run was—not just because of what they’d accomplished, but that they did it together.
Pictures were already going up on Facebook with fans applauding the team for a job well done. For Sisk, who was accustomed to fan support consisting almost entirely of parents and a few friends, this was something different altogether. Playing for the national team, there was a feeling that more people wanted to see them do well. It was hard not to take notice.
“It was pretty much a dream come true,” says Sisk. “I’m incredibly thankful to all the people involved with me getting a chance [to play] and everyone that made the experience so amazing. If I ever got the chance to go back, I’d do it in the heartbeat.”
Back in Amherst, Sisk has returned to her routine as a college student. But the congratulations and Facebook notifications continue to pour in—a welcome reminder of a journey she’ll always remember.