Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Sarah Gonzalez

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On Sept. 8, 1995, in its inaugural season, the Kansas women’s soccer program played its first ‘home’ game. Due to unsuitable grass conditions, instead of playing at SuperTarget Field, now named Jayhawk Soccer Complex, KU was forced to play at the Shawnee Mission Soccer Complex in Overland Park, Kan.

Seventh-grader Sarah “Speedy” Gonzalez, a native of Overland Park and a lifelong KU fan, made the short trip from her house to see the contest.¬†Little did she know, that evening would be the start of a permanent passion with the game of soccer that ended up taking her to the university of her dreams and the same sport that would also teach her more in life than how to defend the goal.

“Seeing the competitive atmosphere and athleticism on the field, it was like, ‘That’s what I want, I want to represent KU and I want to play soccer’,” said Gonzalez. “So it was perfect.”

Following that night, soccer never left her life. Gonzalez stands at five feet four inches tall, which is shorter than the ideal collegiate goalkeeper. Her smaller stature didn’t have a negative effect on her prep career. During her time at Shawnee Mission West High School for the Lady Vikings she was a four-year letterwinner and a three-year captain while playing goalkeeper. She was named first team all-state, all-metro, all-county and all-league in 1999. Opposing high school offenses rarely scored on Gonzalez, as she holds the SMWHS career record for shutouts in a season (nine) shutouts in a career (19.5) and goals-against average at 0.84. In the classroom, she was an honors student with dreams of not only becoming a soccer coach when her playing days were over, but also becoming a math teacher.

Many high school athletes who show that kind of dominance in their respective sport garner the attention of numerous collegiate programs trying to sway a player toward their school. In the case of Sarah Gonzalez, two numbers deterred a lot of college coaching staffs from reaching out to her: 5’4″.

With her sights still set on playing goalie in college, early in her high school career, Gonzalez recalled attending an off-season camp hosted by KU. The camp also had other college coaches in attendance to scout potential players.

“We were just playing little scrimmages with no goalies and so I played in the field,” Gonzalez said. “I was doing pretty well and this coach came up and he was excited about me and he asked, ‘What’s your position?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t play in the field.’ He sort of looked at me [funny] and I said, ‘I’m a goalie,'” Gonzalez recalled. “The shock on his face when I told him that was, ‘You’re too short to play goalie.’ I was kind of taken back by it, just to have a coach tell you that you’re not able to do something when it was your dream. That really makes a rough day for you.”

More often than not, college coaches look at the physical size of a potential recruit to evaluate whether or not they will fit into the program. The same thing happened to Gonzalez. Coaches suggested she should switch positions to have a chance to play after high school. Having coaches doubt her and say she was too small motivated Gonzalez to prove them wrong. The drive she employed to try and outwork everyone else and be successful in the classroom and in the goalie box at SMW shifted into overdrive.

“I always like a challenge so when someone tells me I can’t do something, then I usually try to find a way to prove I can,” Gonzalez said.

She began to train harder than she ever had before in hopes of being recognized by someone who wasn’t concerned with having an under-sized goalie.

The hard work paid off. After stellar play, and setting records at SMW, a few colleges began to take notice and start recruiting her, even the coach who once told her she was too small to play goalie now wanted her to man the box for his team. She had little interest in the other schools that began to recruit her. Deep down, Gonzalez knew what jersey she wanted to wear and when Kansas head coach Mark Francis and his staff took interest, Gonzalez’s recruiting process was over.

“In my heart it was always KU,” Gonzalez said. “It had everything I wanted; it was close to home, it had the tradition, my siblings went there. I’m 12 and 15 years younger than my siblings so when they were in college, I was in elementary school and I would go and stay at the dorms with them. It was always ‘home’ to me and just what I wanted.”

Her dream had been fulfilled. She had accomplished her goal of becoming a NCAA Division-I soccer player at her favorite school. Gonzalez knew the work it took to get her to that level, and the work it was going to take to maintain that level. What she didn’t know was her experience at KU would test her heart, soul and dedication in ways they had never had been tried before.

In 2000, the rookie goalkeeper played in 18 matches while starting nine of them, logged 842 minutes, recorded 49 saves and was named the team’s newcomer of the year. Gonzalez was going to school to become a math teacher, and she was a big contributor to the KU soccer team. Things could only be looking up from there, right?

Over the next three years of her career, Gonzalez would see her minutes diminish significantly. Coach Francis had recruited a future All-American goalkeeper, Meghan Miller, who had the combination of size and raw-athletic ability that made it impossible to keep her off the field. When Miller overtook Gonzalez for the starting keeper spot the following year in 2001, Gonzalez didn’t become discouraged and throw a fit over playing time. Instead, she embraced her role, focused on being a great teammate and worked even harder than she had before on doing the things that got her to Kansas in the first place.

“In high school, I was one of the better goal keepers and athletes; but you go into college and everyone is just as good, or better than you,” Gonzalez said. “My sophomore year I was beaten out by Meghan Miller, who was an amazing goalkeeper. I could have gone two ways; I could have been angry and just always been negative, or I could have realized that was a challenge in my life and I was going to work to try to overcome that challenge.”

Gonzalez chose the latter; she put in extra time in the weight room and tried to improve her vertical. If teammates needed a goalie to shoot on outside of practice, Gonzalez was there. During practice she would push through every drill and be an encouraging teammate.

“That’s what every day was for me. Every day was to try to work harder, improve and to challenge her [Miller],” Gonzalez said. “That kind of carried over to my life now, being a teacher and a soccer coach. I make sure they [students and players] realize that nothing’s ever easy, you have to work for it and work to keep it. If something’s too difficult, then you’re just not trying hard enough.”

Miller felt the influence Gonzalez had on her playing career.

“She was most of the reason that I was any good,” Miller said. “She pushed me every day in practice and didn’t allow me to rely on my abilities. She made me better. She never let me relax and she was always busting me to do my stuff and work hard.”

The comparisons between Gonzalez and the University of Notre Dame legend, Rudy, began to catch on. Even though she played sparingly in games her senior year, the work ethic and leadership Gonzalez displayed day in and day out led her coaches and teammates to select her as a captain in 2003.

“‘Rudy’ is actually one of my favorite movies, so it meant a lot to me. It’s the total thing of five-foot nothing, 100 pounds, and I got to compete at one of the greatest universities that no one expected me to,” Gonzalez said. “I was like, ‘Yeah I want to be like Rudy’, the hardest working one that injuries can’t stop me I’m just going to push through everything and make sure everyone knows that I’m one of the best hustlers on the team.”

In the spring of 2004 she went on to graduate with a degree in secondary education for mathematics. Nine years ago Gonzalez accepted a position teaching math in a familiar place, her alma mater, SMW. Two years later, at SMW, the dream she had aspired to accomplish became reality when she was named the head coach of the girls’ soccer team.

“I’m a very devoted person and dedicated and loyal. I loved it at West. I always wanted to come back and give back to West,” Gonzalez said. “I’m pretty honored to coach varsity and teach where I used to go.”

The Sunflower League, the conference SMW athletics takes part in, named Gonzalez its 2011 Coach of the Year. Her team was also recognized by the league for sportsmanship.

“I’d like to say that the players helped me get that honor. I wish I could say it was all me, but it was all them. For them to work hard, to listen to everything and work together as a team, that really goes to them. I was very thankful for the players I had,” Gonzalez said.

For Gonzalez the accolades are a great accomplishment, but she hopes to have a different impact on students and players at SMW.

“Just teaching them [students] to work hard, how to be overall good people,” Gonzalez said of her goals. “Same [goes] on the soccer field, but also I want to challenge them. If they want to go on to that next level, I want to show them what it’s like to be part of a collegiate program and how hard you have to work. It was going to be hard for me to play in college so I had to work for it. I want to remind them that it’s not easy and they have to work for it. Once they accomplish that, they have to work even harder to be able to become part of that program even more.”

Gonzalez’s impact on the University of Kansas soccer program will never be understood from pulling old box scores out of archives. Rather, it can be seen each year when she returns to work the summer camps and ends up being each camper’s favorite counselor, or when she comes to Lawrence for soccer alumni weekends and is caught up reliving all of her college memories. The most telltale sign of Gonzalez’s lasting impact on KU can be understood at the end of each soccer season when she presents the annual award the coaching staff dedicated in her name after she graduated.

“It’s called the Sarah ‘Speedy’ Gonzalez award – it’s for heart, soul, work ethic and putting the team first,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not always given to the star on the team. It’s given to who they felt was the most encouraging, hardest working and most determined to help the team out. I did not expect that at all and I’m truly honored to go back every year to hand out that award.”

Coach Francis recognizes the influence Gonzalez had on his Kansas soccer program, and how each player, no matter of position on the roster, is important to the team’s success.

“It was always about the team to Sarah. It was never about her. It was always about ‘What do I need to do to make the team better?’,” Francis said. “We now have a heart and soul award at the end of the year that the kids vote on – somebody who puts it all out there for the team, for the better of the team. We named that award after Sarah, and we’ve never done that previously, or since then with another player. So that says a lot about how much we thought about Sarah. She was just the total team player, and you’ve got to have players like that around to be successful. She’s a big help with our camps in the summer and, she lives close enough that she still comes back to the games to watch KU. I think ‘Speedy’ bleeds Crimson and Blue.”

Having the desire to accomplish something and facing adversity time and time again causes many people to give up on their dreams. When Gonzalez was told she was too small to play goalie in college, she worked harder to prove that she could indeed play at that level. When she got beaten out for the starting job, she sacrificed her ego and worked even harder for the betterment of the team. Her experiences at the University of Kansas helped shape her toward the lifestyle she lives today.

“KU made me who I am today. I would like to think I’m a strong teacher and a strong coach and just overall a strong human being,” Gonzalez said. “I owe a lot of that to KU with all the support, encouragement and challenges that they gave me. The traditions that I was able to carry on are instilled into me for the rest of my life.”

Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.