Entering college as a freshman can be one of the most exciting and terrifying things in a young person’s life. For athletes good enough to play at the collegiate level, the dreams of performing in front of hundreds or thousands of fans and proving yourself not only to your school but to the entire country can finally be realized.
After years of hard work, the true journey really begins at that point. For freshman goalkeeper Nikki Quinn of the UCSB women’s water polo team though, that moment was ruined at the worst time when she broke her arm on Christmas morning — less than a month before the start of the season.
“I was pretty devastated,” Quinn said. “My immediate thought process was I never knew if I’d be able to play again. ”
The original diagnosis was that Quinn would be kept out for at least 10 weeks, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to take part in team activities.
“I didn’t miss out on anything, even when I was on the side of the pool deck. For weeks I would go to practice, and I wasn’t allowed to touch a ball so I would just swim and do legs,” Quinn said. “I was just sitting there wanting to play, and in that month it made me realize how much I missed it.”
The timing of her injury was made even worse due to the fact that Cathy Neushul, the coach who had recruited Quinn to UCSB, was replaced by current head coach Wolf Wigo in the offseason.
“She mentioned to me in the beginning of summer that I would be the starting goalie, so that was a bummer,” Quinn said. “But I liked getting a new coach because it was a clean slate.”
Quinn would have to wait to be able to prove herself though, as she worked herself back into game shape as fast as possible.
She found inspiration wherever she could, whether it was from people telling her that she would never come back from the injury or from a famous athlete like recently-injured basketball star Kobe Bryant.
As Quinn fought her way back from the injury, her work ethic and dedication to the team did not go unnoticed by her teammates. On a team full of young freshmen and sophomores, she found a way to stand out and make her presence felt despite being sidelined.
“Nikki’s the type of person that goes above and beyond everything that she does,” junior utility Lauren Martin said. “She didn’t want to miss anything; she wanted to still be involved in what the team was doing. She wants to get in with the team and do the extra amount of work even though she has a cast on.”
After being sidelined for nearly four months and not playing in a competitive game since August, Quinn finally got her chance to play less than two weeks ago against the top team in the Big West: No. 5 UC Irvine.
“The day before the game [Coach Wigo] asked me if I was ready to play, and I looked at him like ‘I’ve been ready. I want to play,’” Quinn said. “Mentally I was thinking, ‘I haven’t played in seven months, do I even know how to play?’ I was nervous, but after the first quarter I got back into the hang of it and it was fine.”
It wouldn’t take long for her to face her first test in a college game as the Anteaters found an opening early in the first quarter. However, what seemed to be an easy scoring opportunity from five meters turned out to be a remarkable first career save for Quinn.
“In my mind that moment was a turning point, because a five-meter [shot] is an easy shot that should be made,” Martin said. “I can only imagine that it just boosts her confidence that much more. I think I speak for the whole team when I say that everyone was just really proud of her for holding her ground and doing what she needed to do.”
By the end of the game, Quinn tallied a total of six saves and held Irvine, one of the most powerful offenses in the nation, to just six goals. Not too shabby for a freshman playing her first career game.
“It definitely made me hopeful. I saw things in that game that I could’ve fixed,” Quinn said about her performance. “I think that’s what makes you a better player: when you think of all the mistakes you’ve done and how to fix them for the next game.”
It wouldn’t take long for Quinn to get her next chance to shine, as she was chosen to play the second half against No. 9 Cal State Northridge less than a week later. After finding herself in a tightly contested match that was clearly going down to the wire, Quinn stepped up in a big way.
UCSB led by just one goal after sophomore utility Jessie Porter scored with under five minutes to go, and from then on the Matadors went into desperation mode looking for an equalizing goal.
With just under a minute remaining, Quinn made an outstanding two-handed save right in front of a goal after a Northridge attacker fought herself free from a UCSB defender. The game wasn’t over yet though, and the Matadors were able to put together one more attack.
Thanks to an untimely exclusion, the Gauchos found themselves playing 5-on-6 in the most crucial possession of the game, but Quinn came to the rescue once more.
With less than 10 seconds remaining in the game, a Northridge attacker found herself wide open right in the middle of the UCSB defense. Her shot attempt to tie the game should have gone in easily, but Quinn made a one-handed save that was even more amazing than her previous one, preserving the win for Santa Barbara and making her unbeaten in her only two appearances.
Despite her individual excellence, Quinn made it clear that she didn’t just have her own performance on her mind.
“In the last couple minutes, you’re playing for your team,” Quinn said. “If you don’t block [those shots] then you’re letting them down.”
While clutch plays are not expected to come from young players in their first games, Quinn’s mindset might be the most important reason why she’s been able to play so well under pressure in her few appearances thus far.
“When the coach asks you which half you want to play, it’s like, ‘Do I want to set the tone in the first half or do I want to be in that situation where we’re down by one and need a stop?’” Quinn said, having personally asked to play in the second half rather than the first. “I like being the last one in the water.”
Now, with the Big West Championships just a few days away, Quinn will have the opportunity to help her team win in its most important games of the season. Just as she has been all year though, she’s ready for the challenge, and her teammates are more than confident in her abilities to help them win.
“If [Coach Wigo] picks Nikki then we all have the confidence in her,” Martin said. “You can see it in her eyes; she wants to win.”
When Quinn hops in the pool this weekend, it’s going to be a tough test no matter who she’s facing. For her though, this entire year has been as tough a test as she has faced since she started playing water polo at the age of 11.
Regardless of how it turns out this weekend, one thing is for sure: UCSB will have a bright future with Quinn in the cage for the next three years.
A version of this article appeared on page 13 of April 23rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo courtesy of Nikki Quinn.