Katie Vanden Avond on a roll

Graham Hays

Katie Vanden Avond, right, exceeded her uniform number when she scored four goals for St. Norbert in a 7-1 win over Cornell College.

DE PERE, Wis. -- One shot strayed off target, then another. Katie Vanden Avond wondered if she might soon run out of opportunities. She had been surprised even to see her name in the St. Norbert College starting lineup for the first soccer game of her freshman season, a road game at Lakeland College, and she felt obliged to prove up to the position.

At long last, the drought ended. Relief came. She beat a defender down the left side, shot to the far post and scored. Finally.

"I don't remember how many minutes in it was, but it felt like forever," Vanden Avond recalled of her debut.

It was 6 minutes and 47 seconds into the game, if we're counting. Forever, in this case, timed out at 407 seconds, or about the length of a good scoring drive for the Green Bay Packers, as time may as well be measured when leaves turn and temperatures drop in De Pere, a small city that sits on both banks of the Fox River about six miles south of Lambeau Field.

Nine minutes later in that 2011 game against Lakeland, Vanden Avond scored again. A third goal soon followed, as did one more after that. Two days later, she scored a hat trick in her home debut against Wisconsin-River Falls.

She is still starting, and she is still scoring.

From torn-up knee to tearing it up

There are more than one thousand schools that compete in one of the NCAA's three divisions. The vast majority field teams in women's soccer. Pick any college soccer field in any corner of the country at this moment and you won't find a player who has scored more goals than Vanden Avond.

On the strength of 86 career goals for the Division III Green Knights, including 32 in 17 games this season, she is college soccer's most prolific active scorer. And she is only a junior.

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She stands out as a player, but Katie Vanden Avond, fourth from the back, fits right in with her teammates, who are lined up for the national anthem.

"I can't really fathom what it means even, because I just know there are such good schools and such great players," Vanden Avond said of her scoring feat. "I don't really understand how I am at the top of that list."

Each of those thousand-plus soccer programs, save St. Norbert, passed on someone who has scored more goals than any player it recruited. Not that she holds a grudge. It is all part of why she is having the time of her life.

It's why she is making the most out of soccer in a setting where soccer most definitely isn't everything.

There was a time when it looked like the game might take Vanden Avond far from home. She scored a lot of goals as a high school freshman in De Pere and more still the next year. St. Norbert women's soccer coach Dennis Detrie knew the local goal scorer's name and knew what he saw when he watched her play.

"She doesn't look very fast, but the way that she moves and can get around people, her speed is very deceptive," Detrie said. "People, when they try to defend her, they think, 'This girl's not that fast.' Yet somehow she gets past them. You could see that. And the way she could strike a ball, it was solid. You don't always go out looking for kids who are going to score amazing, fantastic goals, just that they can put a foot to the ball and be solid with it."

At the time, one of Vanden Avond's older brothers, Ben, played soccer at St. Norbert. Detrie would occasionally inquire if there might be a chance to extend the family line at the school for which Lisa Vanden Avond, their mother, played basketball and volleyball before there was a women's soccer program. The response was rarely encouraging. The word on Katie was that Division I was a possibility. Schools like Western Illinois and Wisconsin-Green Bay showed interest. The dream of playing at the highest level lodged itself in her head.

A Division III school, even one down the street whose men's games she attended, wasn't really part of her plan.

Then came an indoor soccer game just before Katie's sophomore high school season (girls' high school soccer is a spring sport in Wisconsin). She and the opposing goalkeeper went for a ball. When Katie planted, she heard what sounded like three quick pops in her knee. The indoor arena's unforgiving confines added insult to injury, as her face slammed into the boards that marked the edge of the playing surface when she fell. Tests confirmed a torn ACL.

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Attending college only two miles from home lets Katie Vanden Avond stay close to her parents, Lisa and Keith.

Her high school junior season was lost, and the recruiting interest in her went with it. That Dr. Patrick McKenzie, the orthopedic surgeon for the Packers, performed her surgery and kept a close eye on her rehab schedule didn't seem to matter. Off the beaten path to begin with -- there are only four Division I programs in the state of Wisconsin -- she became all but invisible. A few colleges asked for highlight tapes, but she and her parents hadn't thought to make any when she was still a sophomore. A visit to Division II Northern Michigan left both Katie and Lisa unsure the coach even knew who she was.

It didn't help that her senior season went poorly. The spark, as she described it, that had been there before remained unlit even as her body returned to full strength. But Detrie asked her to visit St. Norbert, to take a new look at a place she had seen plenty of times. She toured the campus that rests up against the Fox River, full of brick buildings that look like those a movie director would demand as college scenery. While her brother had played on something close to a plowed cornfield across the river, she saw Donald J. Schneider Stadium, a multimillion-dollar structure for football, soccer and track that opened in 2010.

She saw the school in a new light. And after a fair bit of frustration, she felt wanted.

"Dennis was the only person who asked me to play soccer in college," Katie said.

A starting defender and captain in his own playing days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Detrie scored just once during his time with that Division I school a few miles up the road. The old line that all defenders secretly want to be forwards proved true in his case, at least in terms of the free-flowing, attack-minded soccer he coaches at St. Norbert.

"People have the philosophy that defense wins championships," Detrie said. "Maybe. But I tell you what, you score four goals, I'm going to try and score five. Those are the kind of girls we try to bring in."

Just about the only year the Green Knights didn't pile up goals on his watch was the season before Katie arrived, the forward ranks thinned by a glut of graduations. Half an hour and three goals into Katie's first game, that problem was solved.

Playing for fun

Courtesy of Elly Wiebusch

St. Norbert honored Katie Vanden Avond during the homecoming football game.

A nice home stadium aside, Division III is a different experience from that with which most fans of college sports are familiar.

Playing on one of the conference's particularly rustic pitches during a road game, Vanden Avond once raced full steam toward the end line, down the sharp incline at the edge of the playing surface and into a thicket of woods. After bushwhacking back to the field, she received a round of applause. Such are the perils. Crowds number in the triple digits only on good days. On Senior Day in De Pere this past weekend, amid a busy schedule of high school football playoffs and a wind chill in the low 30s, there were perhaps 40 people in the stands at kickoff. There are no athletic scholarships in Division III, partial or otherwise, and programs run on limited budgets. Although most of his conference peers are at least full-time coaches, Detrie remains a part-time employee and splits his time between coaching and a job as an alcohol distributor.

"Look, this is Division III athletics," Detrie said. "We're here to have fun. We really are. And I am, too. You're not getting paid to play here. It's not Division I, where it's train, train, train, train. We're here to have fun. And if you're not having fun, and I'm not having fun, then why are we doing this? It doesn't make any sense."

Granted, it's easier to have fun when you win. But for all the mellowness of a Friday night practice -- slow getting started amid all the laughter, it pauses at one point for junior Kaitlin Schmitz to do some front flips at midfield and features a mid-practice sprint race between Detrie, volunteer assistant Jenni Jacobsen and senior Zoe Kurth -- St. Norbert is 67-20-4 in conference over the past 10 seasons and Sunday clinched the current regular-season conference championship. They're as serious as they need to be.

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The intimate feeling at St. Norbert (enrollment 2,229) fits Katie Vanden Avond perfectly.

Indeed, in the weeks after her frustrating senior season in high school, Katie put her boyfriend to work as what amounted to a human target, hitting soccer balls at him hour upon hour to try to reignite the spark. This past summer, she took some of the money earned through her jobs at the Packers pro shop and baby-sitting -- the latter client list including Detrie's 14-month-old daughter -- and signed up for workouts at a local training center, intent on getting in the best shape of her life. The result is a season that has put the Division III career record of 124 goals, held by Luther College's Katie Pettigrew, very much in play.

The passion to be better at something than you were the day before is no different in Division III than in Division I.

And yet soccer is in many ways ancillary to her college experience. She is a double major in communications and business and took last spring off to complete an internship with Schneider National, a trucking company based in Green Bay. That was far from the pursuit of a passion, but it was preparation for a future. There is at least one Division III product in the National Women's Soccer League, FC Kansas City's Jaime French, but as Katie said, her own soccer future probably involves playing with her mom, who still competes in an area indoor league.

College is and should be about more than soccer for those in even the top tier of Division I, but there is no room to imagine otherwise here. Nor much desire to.

"I love St. Norbert; I don't even know how to put it into words," Katie said. "I love the small school. It just feels like home, and not because I'm two miles from my house, but I feel like I belong here. This is such a beautiful campus. I have classes where I'm one of eight students in the room and my professor knows my name, and I can talk to her about a paper I wrote and she would know exactly what I'm talking about."

All the while she keeps putting balls in the back of the net.

She doesn't celebrate many of her goals. Not when she made a perfect turn and put her laces through a ball from more than 20 yards in a win against Cornell College, not when she stole a page from the player she loves to watch, Abby Wambach, and scored a rare header in the same game. She seems almost embarrassed at how the goals keep coming. The smile comes when a teammate scores or in a conversation on the bench or while being teased while standing around a postgame cookout that nobody around here would think to curtail just because it's a little windy or a little chilly. Those are the moments she seems to savor.

"She's kind of reserved at first," said co-captain Elly Wiebusch, her friend and roommate. "She likes to feel out a situation before she jumps into it, but she's one of the nicest people I've ever met. She's a very caring person, always looking out for everyone. She always wants to include everyone.

"She's more about who you're with than what you're doing and where you are."

Which is why even if her name doesn't ring any bells when people see it atop the scoring charts, even if the football fans who fill the Packers pro shop on Sundays have no notion the nation's most prolific goal scorer is speeding them through the line, she still couldn't be any more content than she is among family and friends in this town along the Fox River.

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