Stengel sisters making own names
It was conspicuously closer to dawn than dusk when lights around Wake Forest's soccer complex flickered on amid the surrounding darkness. Finals week was in full swing on campus, and even at this early hour there were surely students still trying to cram a semester's worth of skipped studies into a few remaining hours. But there was nothing haphazard or hurried about the way the figure on the grass, soccer ball at her feet, worked her way through material long since mastered.
It is why senior Katie Stengel breaks the curve for her soccer peers.
Former Wake Forest assistant Tim Santoro tells a story of how Stengel used to climb the fence at the locked soccer complex to get in extra time on the field. The problem with those efforts was that they still required daylight to play. Far more efficient, as Stengel admitted when asked about the pitch invasions her old coach described, was swiping a set of keys, letting herself in and turning on the lights.
"I've never seen a female player with the approach to the game like Katie has," said Santoro, now the head coach at NC State.
Following in the footsteps of one of the most dominant players in college soccer is an impossible task. For Jackie Stengel, following her older sister's lead is a different story.
"Jackie is going to be just like that," Santoro continued. "You don't have to poke and prod them to become better. Everything they have, they earned."
A freshman at NC State, Jackie isn't interested in the expectations that come with carrying a particular surname. Yes, she is the younger sister of Wake Forest's second-team All-American. Sure, no more than a couple of hours of North Carolina highway now separate the sisters, who hail from Florida's space coast. Absolutely, those two facts will invite comparisons.
Jackie also knows that if expectations mattered, there wouldn't be a name to live up to in the first place.
Her older sister showed a lot of people what they could do with their expectations.
"[Wake Forest coach Tony Da Luz] is a smart man and does a great job, but I'm not sure he would say that he could see what she would turn out to be," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that would have said Katie Stengel was going to have a career like this, looking into a crystal ball."
The oldest of three Stengel children, followed by Jackie and their younger brother, Jordan, Katie has been around soccer as long as she can remember, back as far as when she watched from the sideline at 4 or 5 years old as her dad, Scott, played in an adult league near their Melbourne, Fla., home. In truth, she's been around the game even longer than that. Not yet a year old when the family moved to Florida, she was in the stroller when her dad, who played college soccer at the Air Force Academy, wandered over to the nearby Florida Institute of Technology to watch that Division II men's soccer powerhouse play games.
Once she took the field herself, she didn't leave it for much besides school, sleep and sustenance. And at least two of those seemed negotiable. She was the one who always wanted to do one more drill or go a few more minutes in practice, the eye rolls of teammates notwithstanding. She didn't want to go to the mall or to the movies. There was always something she could work on.
"You hear a lot about dads that push their kids," Scott said. "I had the opposite challenge. My challenge was mental with Katie. She puts so much pressure on herself to do well. She'd make the littlest mistake and be so upset. I'd have to tell her, from when she was little until now, 'Smile, have fun, sweetheart.'"
Class valedictorian in high school, she earned academic honors in each of her first three years at Wake Forest. But the work required to excel in the classroom is the means to an end, a streak of perfectionism sated by grades. It's a different story with soccer. The goals are nice, but the work is part of the reward.
"I definitely don't enjoy the schoolwork; I could do without that," Katie said. "I actually do enjoy the [soccer] training and the individual training and stuff, just working on small little things and gradually seeing it progress and finally mastering a skill or getting better at that one thing. Then, when it translate to the game, it's that much more rewarding.
"I don't know, I think I almost have more fun at practice than I do sometimes in games."
Despite all that, not to mention the 170 goals she scored in 72 high school games, she was not a prized recruit, coming from a small school and a small club program. She grew up reading books about Mia Hamm and Anson Dorrance, writing papers about Kristine Lilly, and dreaming of playing for North Carolina. She never heard much from the Tar Heels. It was much the same with Stanford. She sent letters to Notre Dame and excitedly tore open the envelope when a letter finally came in return. She recalled that it said the Fighting Irish didn't have time to evaluate her.
"You realize you're one small player amongst all these players getting recruited," Katie said.
Wake Forest rated as considerably more than a consolation prize, a consistent postseason participant since Da Luz took over in 1997 and a program that reached the NCAA tournament quarterfinals the season before Katie arrived. But the Demon Deacons still hadn't seen anything like Katie.
In her freshman year, she broke the school record with 16 goals and helped Wake Forest to a surprise ACC tournament title.
As a sophomore, she became the first player since Hamm to lead the ACC in scoring in back-to-back seasons. She also led the Demon Deacons to the College Cup, soccer's version of the Final Four, for the first time.
As a junior, despite missing the start of the season to help the United States win the Under-20 World Cup (she started in the final against Germany), she broke Wake Forest's career scoring record with more than a season to spare.
Only two active players who spent their entire careers in Division I have more career goals. Neither did it in the ACC.
"She's just got a ridiculous combination of technique and size and power," Da Luz said. "You just don't see that in players. I think what sets her apart is that she can turn defenders better than anybody in the country. They seem to know what she wants to do, and you can scout her all you want, but she just has such an incredible change of speed and can turn at the last second. She just leaves defenders."
That's what came from all the late nights, early mornings and long afternoons.
"I don't know where she got that perseverance from, but boy, she had it," Scott said. "And Jackie is the same way."
The older sister needed it to make a name for herself. The younger sister needs it to ensure that name doesn't define her.
Going to school down the road from Katie was not the original plan. An ACL injury in Jackie's junior year of high school hurt her recruiting stock, but she still drew interest from in-state SEC power Florida. It wasn't the ACC, but the Gators routinely rise above a conference still searching for its soccer footing to contend nationally.
"Playing with her versus playing against her was probably one of the biggest questions in my head," Jackie said of the recruiting process. "I'd love to play with her, but I didn't want to fall in her shadow.
"I want to kind of make a name for myself, not just the name she has made."
But when Jackie began to doubt that Florida was the right fit, it was Katie who came up with the solution and vouched for her sister with Santoro, the former Wake assistant and new head coach at NC State. And in a program that has been near the bottom of the ACC for a long time, Jackie saw an opportunity to make her own mark. The Wolfpack didn't need a name; they needed someone to put goals in the back of the net.
Not to mention it offered one more chance to go head to head with Katie in the final game of the regular season for both teams.
They are different people. On first meeting, they seem to be distinctly different personalities. Katie is reserved, in her own words "socially awkward." Jackie is outgoing and bubbly. Old enough to remember at 6 years old when her parents divorced, Katie took the separation hard and resisted any reconciliation with her mom. Younger, Jackie was left to play what her dad described as the peacemaker role with her older sibling.
But each was always the person the other could count on to go kick a ball around long after everyone else called it a day. They still talk almost daily, certainly after every game. They are sisters.
Before she played a game for the Wolfpack, Jackie organized summer pickup games in Raleigh for new and returning players. If she had needed to climb a fence to get them on the field, well, you get the picture.
"Tony and I didn't push Katie, and I'm not pushing Jackie," Santoro said. "They just want to be better. You enjoy it while you can. I told people, in my coaching career I'm never going to have another Katie. And then to come here, and to have this happen, it's like getting an extension. I get four more years of being able to have a player like that."
Four years of someone who knows that the value of a name is only what a person makes of it.