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NC State women’s soccer missed its normal season, but came back to play — and win. 

Jessica Berlin’21, Mackenzie Crittenberger ’21, Mikhail Johnson ’21, and Hope McQueen ’21 with head coach Tim Santoro on Senior Day. Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics.

By Jack Daly ’01

Senior Mia Thillet remembers the hours leading up to the game. The opponent was Old Dominion. The date was Feb. 7, and it was the women’s soccer team’s first game since Nov. 23, 2019, when the Wolfpack lost in the NCAA Tournament.

In between, the pandemic altered everything, everywhere. The team was doing off-season training in March 2020 but had to shut that down. International players went home and didn’t come back. Incoming recruits opted to play professionally overseas instead of dealing with the uncertainty of when collegiate sports might return. As spring gave way to summer last year, NC State found its 25-person roster depleted by nearly 50%. Other women were still rehabbing injuries or dealing with health concerns that may have been precipitated by COVID-19. The ACC decided to pull together a season in the fall, but the Wolfpack didn’t have enough players to make it viable. It was the only ACC school not to participate, and women’s soccer was the only team at NC State not to play as scheduled in the fall.

The team still trained during fall, which proved therapeutic. Thillet, a defender from Charlotte, N.C., says it provided a needed sense of normalcy. Yet there was not the release provided by games, which made the anticipation for the Old Dominion contest all the more palpable. “We were all super excited,” she says. “We definitely hyped it up in our minds the whole week.”

Head coach Tim Santoro was aware of the emotional catharsis. He remembers how relatively mundane things — warmups, introductions, the national anthem — seemed especially meaningful. “Oh God yeah,” he says. “You can imagine. They were preparing to go the whole year with just practicing.”

Head Coach Tim Santoro during practice with the team. Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics.
Mia Thillet found that patience was a virtue as the team finally returned to the field to play. Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics.

Santoro was the one who decided to sit out in the fall, delivering the news via Zoom back in August. The players understood the rationale, but there was a sense of relief in November when Santoro floated the possibility of an enhanced spring season of nine games from February to April. By then, enough players had recovered from injury or returned from overseas to make things work. Games were spaced out to accommodate the smaller roster of 16 players.

NC State beat the Monarchs 2 - 0 in that first game and stayed unbeaten in its first five before narrow losses to ACC foes Wake Forest and Duke. It finished the spring campaign 5-3-1 and didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But Santoro framed the goals differently. Getting back out there was the important thing. Remembering what it was like to play together. And positioning the team for the fall 2021 season, when a large recruiting class will join 12 returning players.

Jenna Butler was one of the players who had an uncertain prognosis in the fall. She tore the ACL in her knee in 2019 and was rehabbing when COVID-19 struck. The fact she was recovering from such a major injury added another layer personally for the Old Dominion game. The senior from Virginia remembers almost everything. The lead-up and the anticipation. The win. And then the post-game locker room.

“The girls were laughing,” she says. “It was just a great feeling of — we finally got back out there, we got a win in our first game back. We waited so long for this moment; it was just smiles all the way around.”

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