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'I just screamed. I couldn't cope. It was a build-up of four years': Megan Connolly on a remarkable US triumph

The Republic of Ireland international discusses an incredible finale to her time in Florida and starting the next chapter.

IT SLIPPED UNDER the radar back home. Well, with the exception of Cork’s southside.  

Earlier this month at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, Florida State University were crowned NCAA women’s soccer champions after a 1-0 win over the University of North Carolina, the local heavyweights.

“What a way to end,” Megan Connolly says, taking a few minutes out of her immensely busy schedule to reminisce.  

“I don’t think I could’ve dreamed or pictured a better way to finish my college career than with a national title. It’s just all pretty crazy.”

An emotional and hectic few weeks.

When we speak, Connolly has one more exam left and then graduation. Four years finally done. A degree in Sports Management. Then onto the next chapter.

“I’m kind of nervous, to be honest,” she says. 

“Getting your name called and walking up and receiving a degree and trying not to fall. And the gowns here are massive! It’s just a totally different experience. It’s what you’re comfortable with and I’ve grown up with sports and playing in big games. That I can deal with. But walking up onto a stage in front of thousands of people just to pick up a piece of paper gets me more nervous than anything.”

NCAA Soccer: DI Women's College Cup Connolly and her Florida State University team-mates celebrate their NCAA victory earlier this month. USA TODAY Network USA TODAY Network

It’s been impossible for Connolly to properly bask in the afterglow of the NCAA triumph because of her studies and the focus turned to her academic obligations immediately following the championship final.      

“After the game, we headed straight back to Florida,” she says. 

Our flight was leaving at 12am and we all had classes at 9 in the morning. We arrived back at about 2am, had a quick nap and then got up for class. And that’s the culture that’s here within the team. They care – just as much, if not more – about the academic side. It’s like, ‘Right, we won but you’ve got class in a few hours so concentrate on your schoolwork’ and that atmosphere has almost helped push us to finish out the last two weeks. It’s a case of ‘You’ve done the soccer part and now it’s about college so get it done’. I’ve got one more exam to go. But once I’m done that, I’m done for good. So I’m just trying to get over it and then it’s relief. It’s like facing into the final all over again. Get through that one last game and then I’m out of there.”

The NCAA is a lucrative, billion-dollar collegiate sports industry in the United States. It is the pinnacle for university athletes. To be crowned a champion is a staggering achievement and a major calling card.

It’s an exhaustive process with teams coming through their respective conferences before reaching the latter stages of the competition. For FSU, their early form was impressive, losing just four times in the regular season. They claimed the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) title with a 3-2 victory over the University of North Carolina and headed to the NCAA tournament as top seeds. Still, their path to the final was difficult. In the first round, they squeezed past Chicago’s Loyola University and needed penalties to beat the University of Southern California. Things were tight in the quarter-finals too but they edged Penn State by a solitary goal.

“We were just a better team this year,” Connolly says.

“Off the field, it was very family-oriented. It was something I’d never been a part of – that tight bond. It’s hard to achieve in a team, to get everyone on the same page and have them all as friends and being together on and off the field. We went back-to-back weeks playing top-ten teams and you’re tired and weary but you look around and you’re playing alongside your best friends. And it makes it easier. You’re more willing to do the job when you’re surrounded by people you care about. It makes the wins that much better when you can celebrate with people you genuinely care about. It’s what made us get over the line – everyone together and working for each other.” 

That togetherness was perfectly illustrated in the semi-finals when FSU faced reigning champions Stanford – a side on a staggering 45-game unbeaten streak, the fifth longest in NCAA history.

NCAA Soccer: DI Women's College Cup Connolly's Seminoles came through an exhaustive season to capture the NCAA crown. USA TODAY Network USA TODAY Network

They hadn’t conceded a single goal in the tournament. So, they were stunned when Gabby Carle cut inside from the right and arrowed a low drive to the bottom corner to give FSU the lead after 28 minutes. Inevitably, Stanford were nervous and edgy. Three minutes before the break, Malia Berkely’s speculative shot from long-range was straight at Alison Jahansouz but as the ball moved in the air, the goalkeeper didn’t get her hands right. A calamitous mistake followed, as did an unlikely 2-0 win for Connolly and her team-mates.

In the decider, it was a familiar match-up. FSU had already beaten UNC in the regular season but it was an inevitably tight affair in the final. Defensively resolute all year, Florida State stayed true to form and held firm. On the hour mark, the superb Deyna Castellanos (shortlisted for the Fifa Player of the Year award in 2017) sent in a low cross and Dallas Dorosy slid in to finish to the net. It proved the game-winner.  

“When the whistle went I just screamed. I couldn’t cope,” Connolly says.  

It was a build-up of four years. Florida State is a very professional environment. It’s a 24/7 kind of thing. You’re invested in this program for so long. My first year we reached the semi-finals, the second and third years we went out early so it was a case of, ‘Alright, this is it. Final year. All of this work.’ I was alongside seven other girls from my year and we were all finishing up. So we were going through every emotion possible. It was hard to believe we had achieved it. It’s not easy to do. In America, to win a national title doesn’t come around easily. But everything worked out. You go through so much and then, finally, everything pays off. So there was a relief to it too.”

“As the weeks passed by and the final games were coming and we reached the quarter-finals, it finally started to hit me. And it was a case of, ‘Right, we’re almost there. Almost the last game’. But then it’s about saying goodbye to everyone. It’s hard wrapping your head around it. It’s been a long four years of investing full-time in this. You get the rewards and make friends for life but it’s hard to leave it behind in a way and close that chapter and move on. Luckily I’ve created friendships that I know will last forever. That’s making the transition easier.”

Megan Connolly with Ingibjorg Sigurdardottir Connolly in action for Ireland in a game against Iceland last year. Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO / Tommy Dickson/INPHO Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO / Tommy Dickson/INPHO / Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After graduation, Connolly is back in Cork for Christmas and will plot her next move from there. She’s signed with an agency – Summit Sports Global – and the aim is to impress some teams over the next few weeks and get a move arranged early in 2019. Wrapping up in Florida also means she can re-focus on the Republic of Ireland squad too as Colin Bell builds towards European Championship qualifiers later in the year.

“Over the past six or seven months I’ve had to sacrifice a lot to be here in the US and finish out my degree,” she says. 

“I’m someone who likes to focus on one thing and do it to the best of my ability. I like to give stuff my full attention. So I had to sacrifice committing to Ireland because I had to commit to the team here and get my degree. But closing this chapter means I can concentrate on my soccer exclusively now. I can settle down with a pro team and get back in the Irish side and contribute there.”    

In terms of a club side, I’m looking everywhere in Europe and seeing what my options are. I want to play in different places. I’ve never been somebody who wants to stay in one place for 10 years. I want to explore, experience different cultures and different styles of football too. Having that mindset, I’m open to different places. Whatever comes my way, I’ll look at the pros and cons and go from there.” 

The senior side may have fallen short in their quest to reach the World Cup next summer but dig a little deeper and it’s been quite an encouraging year for Irish women’s soccer. Connolly is now an NCAA winner but there’s also her international team-mate Denise O’Sullivan, who claimed the NWSL championship with North Carolina Courage and was voted the team’s Player of the Year.      

“What Denise has done in her career – going different places and winning – that’s set the standard for me,” Connolly says. 

Denise O'Sullivan Connolly says her fellow Corkonian Denise O'Sullivan is an inspiration for her. Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’ve looked up to her. She’s gone to the US, she’s a starter on one of the best teams in the world and it spurs me on to achieve that too. I think – and I hope –  that younger girls back in Ireland can see that. Girls that are hoping to go professional or attend college in America. It’s a lot to do with taking a risk. Denise was with Houston Dash and it wasn’t going her way but it didn’t stop her. She went somewhere else, kept going and got her rewards. And it’s the same with me. It’s hard in America to stay four years in college in a setup like this because it’s so demanding. But if you stick with it and keep going then you’ll get rewarded. I hope younger girls can see that. And even with other players on the Irish team – Katie (McCabe) and Lou (Quinn) at Arsenal and Lianne (Kiernan) at West Ham – it’s given a lot of girls the chance to aspire to that. I just hope that we’ve helped younger girls look at it in that way.”

The day after Connolly’s NCAA success, she was watching television and was surprised to see a report on the news about women’s soccer. There was a picture of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg holding her Ballon d’Or trophy. But the subsequent story wasn’t about that at all and focused instead on what the Lyon attacker was asked on stage by a French DJ host during the event in Paris.   

“It was crazy, to be honest, and it’s hard to process it,” Connolly says. 

You don’t see it happen in the men’s side. People will ask, ‘Why did he say that?’ and there’s always a back story as to why it was said. But I don’t think it should have been said in the first place. For everything women are trying to fight for – in terms of soccer and equality – and you’re battling and battling and then you have something like this. The first female to get that award and it’s masked by a two-sentence comment. It’s annoying and kind of upsetting and again it brings up the whole argument of equality.” 

“In terms of Florida State and our most recent national champions, it was the women’s teams in soccer and softball. And the last national championship before that was the women’s soccer team again back in 2014. So, women’s teams are kind of paving the way. But, that doesn’t seem to get noticed, in a way. With this topic it’s always going to be a conversation. No matter how hard people fight to get on the same page, there’s always going to be a comparison or a difference. Because that’s just who we are. We always look to compare things to see who has the edge on stuff. It’s always going to be around, no matter how hard you try to have it differently.”

Connolly is keen to hit the reset button and get stuck in to a professional career. University is always a richly rewarding environment but a cocooned existence too. She’s excited about what lies ahead.  

“It’s sad leaving the place and the people but there’s no better way to have gone out than winning the championship and getting the degree,” she says. 

“It’s been a rollercoaster four years but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s ended perfectly and I’m ready to move onto the next step.”        

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