There is no substitution for it. It is one of the only factors that a player needs to succeed, but cannot acquire it through training or study. It only comes once you endure a challenge and live to tell about it
It makes sense that experience can be a cruel teacher: it gives you the test first, then the lesson.
While this is Alabama's first time in the College Cup, the semifinals of the NCAA women's soccer tournament with the Crimson Tide facing UCLA on Friday, Coach Wes Hart's squad isn't short on experience when looking on a grand scale.
Alabama has four juniors, seven seniors and six players using their graduate eligibility. Some, like Riley Tanner, McKinley Crone and Ashlynn Serepca, are transfers after having success at previous schools. Others, like Riley Mattingly Parker, Felicia Knox and Kat Rogers, have called Tuscaloosa home for the entirety of their college careers.
It's an advantage to be able to rely on strong veteran play, and it's even more impressive that every aforementioned player was on the roster when Alabama defeated Clemson in last year's NCAA tournament before losing to BYU.
This team will already go down as the best in program history, but there are two key players who weren't a part of last season's success. One had only played three games before a season-ending injury, and the other was a senior at a high school over 1,000 miles away from Tuscaloosa.
Yet, the lack of collegiate experience hasn't slowed them down. Instead, both are essential components on what could be a championship team by Monday night.
They're forward Gianna Paul and defender Brooke Steere.
"I was so intimidated by all of them coming into this season," Paul said about getting acclimated to the upperclassmen. "I knew how talented they were. I only heard positive things watching them on TV. You could just tell how great they were."
The Huntingdon Station, N.Y., native came to Alabama after a decorated career at Walt Whitman High School: two-time all county honors, offensive player of the year award, and a conference championship, not to mention a two-time state champion.
While she may have been intimidated at first, the progression from high school to college ultimately became seamless.
"I thought the transition was going to be a lot more difficult than it was," Paul said. "But having such a cohesive team that gets along so well has made the process so easy.
"Because [the upperclassmen] are all such good people, it just made it so much easier to get to know them and get acclimated with the team."
Paul's adaption was smooth overall, but that wasn't quite the case for Steere.
The Dexter, Mich., native arrived at Alabama during the 2021 season, and then found herself dealing with a major injury.
"I had a lot of interesting things happen in my right shoulder," Steere said as she laughed. "I had a lot of stretched ligaments and a few tears, so I had to get surgery."
If that wasn't hard enough, Steere came to Alabama as a forward, but before the 2022 season began, the starting center back became unavailable, which ultimately led to her making the switch from scoring goals to defending one.
"Although it was definitely a change at the time, I wouldn't want any other way than how it's happening now," Steere said.
Looking at the performance of the defense, that decision was the right one as Steere has started all but four game this season. Consequently, Alabama has one of the best back lines in the country led by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Reyna Reyes, and also includes Sasha Pickard and Gessica Skorka.
"Going from kind of cheering on the team to being in the center of everything happening has been absolutely amazing," Steere said.
But Steere is doing more than holding her own among the veterans: she makes plays all over the field and has halted a number of scoring opportunities from opponents. She gives a lot of credit to her defensive teammates, especially Pickard, whom has been a mentor to her.
"Being a center back on our team is very different from being an outside back, just because our outside backs are very offensive-minded as well as defensive," Steere said. "Gessica has helped me so much, but it's more of an outside back and center back thing, because Sasha is also a center back."
For Paul, it wasn't hard to guess whom her mentor has been: SEC Forward of the Year and All-SEC selection Riley Mattingly Parker.
"I don't think I've ever met a better player and person in my life," Paul said. "She is just one of those people you want to be around because her energy is infectious."
Paul went on to say how she tells her mom, Parker's mom and even Parker herself how much she loves the SEC's leading scorer. She also shared how Parker would come by summer workouts and often join in.
"I just don't have enough good things to say about that girl," Paul said.
While she may be Parker's mentee, Paul has more than made a name for herself this season, using her speed and athleticism to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
"As soon as I get on, it's a little bit of a shock to the other team's back line," Paul said. "It's a little added pressure, forcing their back line and their goalie to make quicker decisions."
Currently, the freshman forward has eight goals, tied for third-most on the team, and five assists, and she's earned almost every award you can imagine, including SEC Freshman of the Year, All-SEC Second Team selection and an SEC All-Freshman selection.
Such success would lead you to think Paul is a starter, right? Think again. Paul has only started eight matches for Alabama, but she actually prefers her role as a top reserve, understanding the tactical advantage she provides as someone who changes the pace.
"The whole team's like 'Oh hey, she's on! She's on! Everybody be ready!'," Steere said about opposing teams when Paul gets ready to enter the game.
The success hasn't come without challenges for Paul, who said she had to adjust to the rough style of the conference.
"When I committed here, I didn't know how physical the SEC was," Paul said. "As I started watching the film on how the SEC plays versus ACC soccer, I had to mentally prepare for that."
Though the competition has been fierce, both Paul and Steere say the most intense moments come in practice. It makes sense; not every team has a handful of all-conference players.
In some ways, facing each other may be more challenging than the opponents in games.
"We go pretty hard in practice, and because our level of play in practice is so high, when we get into the game it's pretty easy to meet the competition," Paul said. "Our team practices are almost game-level."
Steere also shared that she and Paul have often gone toe-to-toe, and how the defense is tough because it goes against the country's best in practice.
"Our defense can't not be good, because we have the [SEC] Forward of the Year, Freshman of the Year, and you're going against them in practice," Steere said. "There's definitely been some times we've had some one-on-one scrums."
Her modesty precedes her, but let it be known Steere is one of the best young players in the SEC, evident by her SEC All-Freshman selection, an honor she earned playing a position she never played before this season.
"I was just coming into this year thinking 'Okay, we're gonna figure this position out.' Not that I wasn't expecting anything of it, but it wasn't anywhere near where I thought I was gonna be," Steere said.
According to Steere, earning the selection was a moment where she thought "Wow, I can do this!", and she was excited for the honor.
Now, Paul and Steere will play at the ultimate level collegiately, the College Cup, where there will certainly be some adversity. Fortunately for them, they faced plenty throughout the season and know how to deal with it. The best example was their quarterfinal match against Duke, which saw a 2-0 lead evaporate in a few minutes, then regained when Reyes scored a game-winning goal.
"Every time our team goes down or something happens, it's our team, not the people that did it," Steere said. "Everyone's trying to bring each other up, and the veterans do a better job than everyone else because they know exactly what's going on.
"Having them there just being like 'Ok, it doesn't matter, let's go,' it's been such a quick turnaround because of them."
Paul and Steere have shown great composure during this historic run, but there are times when a player with more experience is needed to cut through the chaos. This team has that, namely Parker and Kat Rogers, another graduate player.
"Both Riley — Kat, especially — do a good job of reining you back in the game itself," Paul said. "Between the two of them, Felicia, Reyna, all of the older girls on the team do a really good job of helping you focus in on what actually matters."
Another person whose leadership has been key — Hart. Goalkeeper McKinley Crone already shared her appreciation for him as a coach, and both freshmen echo those thoughts, expressing their joy in playing for their head coach.
"I couldn't imagine playing for a different coach," Paul said. "I remember throughout my recruiting process, the more and more I got to talk to him, it felt like home. I love him, I couldn't imagine playing for a different coach. And I think he deserves every single accolade that he's gotten."
"He's just been great," Steere added. "I think he's placed everything so perfectly. Even off the field, we always joke with him, he's always around. He just keeps the environment fantastic, and his coaching style is perfect for what we need."
Hart talked about Paul and Steere's success as freshman during the opening coaches' press conference on Monday, sharing how beneficial it is for them to find success early in their careers.
"The fact that they're getting it right now, I gotta believe it's gonna help them by the time they're juniors and seniors," Hart said. "I think it's great for them to see success and play such a pivotal role at such a young age."
Paul and Steere have indeed been key players, and if the Alabama Crimson Tide wants to win the national championship, it will need excellent play from its two stellar freshmen.
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Brooke Steere and Gianna Paul: Alabama Soccer's Dynamic Freshmen Duo – Sports Illustrated