The elite select teams don’t always pick the best players, and those kids who have not been designated the best in their age class should not lose track of their sports dreams.
That’s the message Pitt Meadows soccer player Rachel Lee wants up-and-coming athletes to hear, as she prepares to start her career as an NCAA first division goalkeeper.
Although she was considered second string by some metro teams in the Lower Mainland, and cut in tryouts, she has won a full academic and athletic scholarship with Alcorn State University, in Lorman, Mississippi.
It was an opposing coach who recognized her talent last summer. Ray Goldenchild of the Kensington-Little Mountain (KLM) FC had a team up against Lee’s silver-level squad from Coquitlam, and despite a barrage of shots, they only managed to put one past her.
“She was rough around the edges, but I don’t know how many shots we got on her, and we couldn’t score on her,” he recalls.
Intrigued by this talent, he contacted her Coquitlam coach, and he agreed to let Goldenchild work with Lee. Goldenchild had played in the NCAA, and has sent other Canadian girls to scholarships in the top-flight collegiate league on the continent. He saw that same potential in Lee.
But the coach said his new project had a lot of work to put in, to get to that level.
“She looked like she was stuck in mud. She couldn’t move her feet,” he remembers. “Goaltending, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t hands – it’s feet.”
Lee’s own passion for the sport was one of her best assets as she worked on her game.
“She already had all the raw talent. And she soaked up information – the desire was there,” said Goldenchild. “It’s character – that’s what it’s all about, at the end of the day.”
Her father Hector Lee saw steady improvement in Rachel as she worked with Goldenchild, and his U-18 Dasmesh team.
“Her learning curve just spiked,” he recalls.
Goldenchild had Rachel come out and play on the back line, so she could learn that aspect of the game, and then taught her how to start play from the back end.
Rachel isn’t aggressive when she plays out, says her father, but once she pulls on a goaltender’s jersey, she goes after the ball like a rugby player.
“It’s like she takes on a different persona when she’s in there,” said Hector.
She went to the Starfire Tournament in Seattle with a Saanich Premier team, and at that showcase event allowed just two goals in four games.
“That’s when she proved to herself that she could play at that level,” said Lee.
She’s the classic late bloomer, and didn’t get serious about soccer until she was already in Grade 10, inspired by the Canadian national team.
“I just love to play the sport, and once I started playing goalkeeper, I realized this is what I wanted to do for soccer. After seeing the women’s World Cup, and seeing how the Canadian women’s team did, it lit a light bulb – like ‘I want to do that.’”
She paid particular attention to the keepers.
“They’re like the anchor of the team, and they keep the team in the game, not just by saving shots, but also keeping a positive attitude and making the team push harder.”
She has met Maple Ridge’s Karina LeBlanc, the national team keeper, on several occasions – at a soccer camp, when she gave a motivational speech at Pitt Meadows secondary, and again at an autograph session.
She said LeBlanc also “started small” in soccer, but her talent won out.
“She’s definitely an inspiration.
“She’s a great player, and she keeps spirit on the field or off the bench.”
Once she got serious, Lee tried out for metro teams, but most of them already had a girl earmarked for the position. She couldn’t break in, until Goldenchild opened some doors for her. She played with a West Van premier team, and that calibre really helped elevate her game.
He also made Lee believe in herself.
“He made me realize after so many times of being turned down, that I am better than I thought myself to be,” she said. “He really built my confidence in my game play, and within myself.”
Rachel and Hector put together a video of her playing, and sent it to NCAA schools. They included her marks – straight As, except for one B in English. Soon the scholarship offers started coming in.
She plans to study sciences, and is interested in microbiology and virology.
Goldenchild expects she will continue to improve and excel at the next level.
“She’s a very humble, hard worker,” he said. “There’s no quit in Rachel.”
“This kid is a wonder,” said Goldenchild. “It’s unbelievable to me that everyone overlooked her.”
The sport has opened up opportunities for her quickly, and starting in September she begins a new challenge.
“I just want to be an inspiration to other young athletes not just girls, but also boys – work hard, and you can go wherever you want to go.”