Playing in the Mecca of college soccer under the Friday night lights every week is what all collegiate soccer players dream of although few actually get to experience it.
However, some of these soccer players can get lost in the shuffle off the pitch once the referee blows the final whistle. For freshman defender Kailey Hackett of the UCSB women’s soccer team, her drive to the goal is not finished at the end of 90 minutes.
Playing in her first collegiate season, Hackett experiences the same trials and tribulations of any college freshman that are quite ordinary, but her story off the field is anything but.
Since her freshman year in high school and now in her first year at UCSB, Hackett has been involved in the U.S. Youth Soccer TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) program, a community-based initiative for children with special needs organized by volunteers every winter.
“[TOPSoccer] is for kids who have special disabilities and who are diagnosed with autism and Asperger syndrome. It’s basically a day for them to come to our school,” Hackett said. “We play with them, basically make their day and are with them.”
The program, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last year, is free of cost and held at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA — the very school that Hackett attended. Designed for children ages five and up with special needs, the program allows for each of the kids to get the opportunity to develop their skills and self-esteem through soccer.
Besides participating in soccer activities, the children spend plenty of time interacting with the volunteers in various other events organized, such as face painting, balloon art and giveaways.
The matter hits close to home for Hackett, who was inspired to volunteer after hearing the story of one of her best friend’s cousins being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. That account encouraged Hackett to participate in TOPSoccer, a decision that has left just as big of a mark on her as it does on the children she helps. Although the program runs for only one day, it still leaves Hackett with a profound sense of self every year.
“Honestly, it feels really awesome because you’re doing something for someone else and having that feeling — there are no words to describe it really,” Hackett said. “I’m very thankful for everything and my health and being a part of making them happy.”
Despite her endeavors outside of the soccer field, Hackett is quick to remind the crowd of how good of a player she is when she does step onto the grass.
In the first games of the season, Hackett has complemented the defense of the Gauchos and earned herself considerable playing time for a freshman. In nine games played so far, she has started four of them and proven to be a valuable asset to an already strong defense that features four seniors in the backline. In fact, Hackett was a part of four of UCSB’s shutout wins when it went on a five-game winning streak earlier in the year.
“We brought her in to play center back,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “We kind of expect Kailey, once [the starters] graduate, to really kind of step in and be that starter that’s going to play an awful lot of minutes at the center back spot.”
Accustomed to the big stage in high school where she led her team to a CIF championship, the college game brings with it some challenges and a learning curve Hackett still has to adjust to. Just like any other freshman playing for a different team, her first instances wearing the UCSB uniform brought an array of emotions to her, considering how far she has come and what she has given in the past.
“It was nerve-racking and exciting at the same time because I worked really hard to get this far,” Hackett said. “It feels rewarding because I worked really hard to get to where I am right now.”
When she is not tackling the ball away from defenders, Hackett is busy tackling the books. Her soccer aspirations fall in line with her academics and just like any student athlete, she still juggles time between the gym and the classroom.
“It’s pretty stressful because of how much homework we have but I think it’s really awesome at the same time because you’re involved with so much stuff,” said Hackett.
When the season ends, Hackett plans on returning to her hometown of Coto de Caza where she will join TOPSoccer once again for the winter at her high school. Despite all the shots she has taken while playing, it was the shot Hackett took off the pitch that has stayed with her the most, and which she encourages everyone to take.
“No matter what, I think people should just go out there and give it a shot and put those kids and those people before you,” Hackett said.
UCSB’s next match is scheduled for Thursday at 10 p.m. against the University of Hawaii.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of October 9th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.