Natalie Nate controls the Cougar midfield. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
It was the moment she had dreamed about since childhood.
In front of a roaring crowd of 3,810 fans, she sized up the goalie and prepared to take the most important shot of her life.
Deep breath. Step. Step. Kick. Goal!
BYU women's soccer's Natalie Nate is no stranger to success, but her penalty kick to defeat No. 9 California last season proved to be a defining moment in her soccer career.
"I was scared out of my mind--I'll admit it," Nate said. "I was terrified, but I tried not to show it. I had been practicing penalty kicks a lot, and I knew if I did what I'd been practicing, I would make the goal. I was so excited when the shot went in. I looked like a fool jumping up and down, but it was just that awesome!"
Battling Blue and Red
It was this same fierce, competitive instinct that caught BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood's eye when Nate was a high school player.
"I remember feeling really excited to see such a high skill level at such a young age," Rockwood said. "She's someone who really makes a difference on the field. Her work ethic is awesome. She runs all over the field trying to make things happen. She is willing to do whatever is necessary to win."
Despite Rockwood's immediate interest in the 5-foot-6 midfielder, Nate didn't feel confident she had the ability to play at the college level.
"I didn't really consider it too often," Nate said. "I had some people tell me I wouldn't be able to make it, and it took me a while to get over that. One day it just clicked and I realized I could play at the next level."
When it came time to choose a college, Nate had a tough time deciding between BYU and archrival Utah as both schools had talented programs. In the end, Rockwood invited Nate to camp and offered her a scholarship, a proposal Nate couldn't refuse.
"BYU proved to be the all-around right choice," Nate said with a smile. "The team doesn't play on Sundays, which was a really big deal to me, and I wanted to go into exercise science. BYU has a great program for that. Plus it's close to home, so I couldn't refuse the offer."
Accepting the Challenge
Entering her third season as a Cougar, Nate brings talent and experience to the BYU squad. As a two-year starter, Nate netted four goals and assisted on two others, while taking the reins of the midfield and controlling the Cougar tempo over the past two years.
Despite being chosen as one of the players Rockwood wanted on the field during her freshman season, Nate's confidence struggled at times as she was forced to play an uncomfortable position. All-American Jaime Rendich Beck and all-region Charlene Lui already had command of the center-midfield position, pushing Nate out to the wing.
"As a freshman Nate was in a position where she played a lot of minutes for us and started most games," Rockwood said. "I thought she did an excellent job playing outside on the wing. I know she wasn't as comfortable, but we needed her there and she accepted that challenge full force. It was great to watch."
With two years of seasoning under her belt, the expectations are high entering the 2006 season.
"Looking toward the future, she has to be someone that takes control," Rockwood said. "She's played more minutes than most of the girls on our team even though she's just going to be a junior."
Filling the Gaps
Heading into the 2006 season, the Cougars, who were voted to win the Mountain West Conference regular-season title and landed at No. 23 in the Soccer Buzz preseason poll, have big holes to fill after graduating Rendich Beck, Lui and Nicole Anderson. The challenge doesn't discourage Nate, who feels underclassmen are prepared to fill the gaps.
"I think we're going to be awesome," Nate said. "We're going to be as good if not better than we were last year. I know we lost some key starters, but we've had some players really step up in the spring. When we beat the U20 National Team, we saw glimpses of how good we could be this fall. I personally think we're going to the NCAA Elite Eight if we really put our minds to it. I have no doubt that we have that ability."
Nate believes the ups and the downs of last season have helped prepare the Cougars to be great this year. The team will have a greater appreciation for its successes, knowing how fragile and fleeting they may be. Losing to Weber State in the 2005 NCAA Tournament was a difficult blow for Nate to handle, but she will use it as motivation.
"Sometimes things just don't fall your way, but I've learned I have to do everything in my power to control my own destiny," Nate said. "We need to be stronger this year."
After losing five seniors and great leaders, Rockwood will be looking to Nate to fill that leadership role on and off the field. A string of complimentary words immediately come to Rockwood's mind when thinking about Nate as a leader. She is competitive, resourceful and balanced. She is caring, respectful and courageous. She is motivated, hungry and aggressive.
"Leadership wise, we're really going to look to Nate because she's a hard worker and a fierce competitor," Rockwood said. "I think that's something her teammates really rally around."
The humble Nate doesn't like being singled out as a leader, though.
"We will have a lot of great leaders this year and will all share that responsibility," she said. "I want to become the type of person who leads through example and hard work as opposed to voicing it. I want to be the person everybody wants on their team because they know I always work hard and will do whatever it takes to win."
Turning In Her Cleats
Aside from soccer, Nate has much to look forward to over the next couple of years. She will graduate from BYU in two years alongside fiancee Dave Hendrickson, whom she will marry in December.
"Dave has taught me so much," Nate said. "He's helped me realize how much more to life there is than just soccer, but at the same time he's let me love the sport even more."
Nate says she'll turn in her cleats after her career with the Cougars is complete and focus on being a wife and mother.
"I'm excited to coach little kids, including my own children," she said. "I would love to coach a high school team someday, but that's about it. I love soccer, but I don't want it to always run my life."
Living the dream
Rockwood, who is thrilled to have Nate around for two more years, appreciates and respects Nate's outlook on life and soccer.
"She is someone all her teammates respect," Rockwood said. "She is a lot of fun, but she's serious when she needs to be serious. I think she knows the time and place for both fun and seriousness and understands the balance that creates."
As Nate prepares to enter her junior season, she is thankful to be living a fairytale she never would have dared to dream.
"My experience here has definitely exceeded my wildest expectations," she said. "I just wanted to be on the team. I would have given anything for two minutes on the field, so obviously it's been awesome."