NOVEMBER 17, 2016
It’s the 101st minute of double overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Stanford is the top seed playing its long-time rival Santa Clara; the Cardinal have played the Broncos more than any other opponent in program history. Up to this point, things haven’t gone easily. Stanford possessed the ball for most the game, putting 31 shots on goal with nothing to show for it. The team was looking to junior Andi Sullivan, team captain and MAC Hermann Trophy candidate, for direction. Sullivan had just returned from her weeklong stint playing with the national team, where the Pac-12 player of the year played a pair of games against Romania. At this point in the game “I was going to bust my butt and pressure as much as possible, and I saw an opportunity to block a shot,” Sullivan said.
And then she heard a pop.
“The first thing I said to our athletic trainer was ‘I did it, I did it, I did it.’”
It’s every athlete’s worst nightmare. An ACL tear can happen without contact and requires surgery and a long rehabilitation process — six to 12 months — to fully heal. Head coach Paul Ratcliffe remembered, “My first thought was that it must be a serious injury. Andi is a very tough player and we are used to seeing her bounce back immediately.”
After Sullivan was moved off the field into the training room, the team was especially motivated to get the win for its injured captain.
“I remember our coach being like, ‘Regardless of what happens let’s do this for Andi.’ Everyone was ready to put their all into it,” sophomore Jordan Dibiasi recalls.
Meanwhile, Sullivan was in the training room, located right next to Santa Clara’s bench. Inside, the training tables face away from the field. Andi, unable to see the action, was left to listen.
“I could hear the buildup, them getting excited, and finally their screams, and I knew we lost.”
In the 108th minute, the Broncos scored off a cross and finish into the lower right corner of the goal. Soccer, like all sports, can be cruel and unlucky. Ratcliffe explained that while “dominating the match,” Stanford’s inability to score let Santa Clara stay in the game.
Looking back, Dibiasi couldn’t put a mark on what exactly kept the Cardinal from executing.
“When I look at my teammates, I can honestly say they gave it 100 percent,” Dibiasi said. She admitted that one of the hardest parts of the loss “was not winning for [Sullivan] because she has given us so much.”
This specific team, on and off the field, had amazing chemistry. Even Santa Clara, in their postgame recap, acknowledged Stanford’s amazing year and how their upset win will rank as one of the program’s best.
“I’ve said this a couple of times, I was more upset that we lost than that I just tore my ACL,” Andi said.
Sitting in Jimmy V’s Café, Andi sits at a table surrounded by Stanford soccer recruits. For these future players, Andi’s remarkable career thus far is a model one, and awe and respect are visible on all of their faces.
It’s hard to imagine that just three years ago, Andi was sitting at that table meeting current players. After graduating South Country High School in Lorton, Virginia, as TopDrawerSoccer.com’s No. 1 recruit and 2013 NSCAA National Youth Player of Year, Andi was fully prepared to start her first year of college soccer.
Head Coach Ratcliff explained the factors that made Sullivan stand out among the thousands of soccer hopefuls vying for those five Cardinal recruiting spots every year.
“I was drawn to her presence on the field, confidence and leadership skills. Andi possesses all the qualities needed in a dominant midfielder: technical skills, intelligence, athleticism and competitiveness.”
It’s those very qualities that have made Andi so successful on and off the field. When asked about her feelings on coming to Stanford as such a touted recruit, she humbly brushed the praise aside: “Those awards are very flattering to receive, but do not guarantee anything. If I’m going to play, I’m going to have to work for this.”
And work she did. After starting 23 out of the 24 games she played in, Sullivan was named the Freshman of the Year by Pac-12, Soccer America and TopDrawerSoccer.com.
For Andi, hard work is not a deterrent but an opportunity. Her work ethic has an impact on more than just her personal play — it raises everyone else up around her.
“I think her ability to keep up with work while performing at such a high level, missing class to compete with the national team, translates to our entire team,” Jordan said. “If she can do it we can do it too.”
“Because of her, none of us will accept anything less from each other and it’s a part of our team culture.”
When Andi is in the room, people feed off of her energy. Her attitude is infectious, and her confidence comes through in every interaction. Sitting at the sports cafe, various athletic trainers and coaches come over to talk or high-five her, and she beams at them. It’s hard to remember that Andi is currently not on the field training or practicing at full strength, but is still in the rehab process for her torn ACL.
“People would say to me, you’re not invincible. And I didn’t like that, because before I felt invincible. I put so much work into being strong and getting a lot of sleep, and I thought I’m fine, I’m never going to do this,” she said. “I’ve realized now that it can happen to anyone, which is terrifying but also comforting in a weird way since it’s out of your control.”
Being sidelined by an injury is one of the hardest mental and physical challenges an athlete can endure. Andi’s daily schedule is burdened by all of the normal student-athlete commitments: Lift, practice, class. Only now, she has to fit in new additions of physical therapy and treatment. It’s hard to remember that these athletes aren’t just athletes, they’re college students who want to have a typical college experience as well.
“I like hanging out with people too on campus. I like to have friends!”
It’s easier to balance this when your teammates are some of your best friends, as is clearly the case with Andi. Andi does not answer a single question without mentioning the team first or using the pronoun “we.”
Jordan attributed their team chemistry to the precedent set by the upperclassman from the moment preseason starts — a precedent led by “Sunny,” Andi’s team nickname.
“I remember that on our first off day, she took the time to show me around and gave me a personal bike tour,” Jordan said. “Because of that and in the following days of preseason, it became clear that Sunny is someone who loves you andsupports you endlessly, and encourages you to take risks outside of your comfort zone. If it doesn’t work out she’ll be the first one to pick you up; if it does she’ll be the first one to congratulate you.”
Chemistry often translates to success for the Cardinal. The team finished with a No. 6 rank in the NSCAA poll with a final record of 18-2-1. This year they captured their 11th Pac-12 title, their sixth conference championship in eight years.
Andi was one of those people that knew from an early age knew that they were meant to play soccer. As early as elementary school, she remembers telling fellow classmates that she wanted to be a professional soccer player. Over andover again, she had to re-emphasize how genuinely serious she was about that goal.
It was her “when, not if” attitude that propelled her up the ladder of club teams and youth national groups to get where she is now — a member of the U.S. national team.
“People watch warmups and cheer when you come out. I was like holy crap, I’m warming up to play in a game for the national team. And people aren’t here to see me, no one knows who I am. People are here for this.”
Andi did not merely stand alongside her role models on the national team field — she was a standout amongst them. After her first game starting for the U.S., ESPN writer Graham Hays wrote that “no one made a better first impression at soccer’s highest level than Sullivan.” Over her stint with the national team, Andi started both games at midfield, playing all but fifteen minutes.
“My dream has always been to compete in the Olympics.”
With Andi’s track record, this dream feels ripe to become reality. Unfortunately, as her ACL tear illustrates, there are uncontrollable factors that contribute to determining the likeliness of reaching her goal. However, talking to Andi, it’s hard to not believe she’ll persevere.
“My friends are like ‘you’ll be back.’ I believe I will be because I believe in myself as a player.”
When players start to see the end of their college career, thoughts about individual legacy usually start to circulate. Sullivan is not one of those players. Her focus is on what it has always been on, the team.
For Sullivan, discussions about the 2017 season are clouded with the uncertainty that comes with rehabbing an injury.
“I’m working for it now. I’m working for it in a different way, because I’m working from scratch, and I’ve never been so excited before, excited to play soccer, excited to play for this school, excited to play with my friends.”
“What do I want people to remember about me? They are going to remember a lot of different things. I think… just that I won’t settle. I just want to get the best out of everyone.”
Contact Julia Massaro at [email protected]