Ektnitphong relishing chance to play college soccerST. PETER — This spring, Nicole Ektnitphong was in the same position as a lot of other high schoolers who have been heavily involved in sports.
ST. PETER — This spring, Nicole Ektnitphong was in the same position as a lot of other high schoolers who have been heavily involved in sports.
As she prepared to start a new life in college, the 2011 Worthington High School graduate didn’t know if her soccer career would survive the transition, despite her being a standout player for the Trojans throughout high school.
Even after she made the decision of which college to attend — Gustavus Adolphus College — she wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the women’s soccer team, as all new recruits to the program are required to first go through tryouts once they arrive in the fall.
“Gustavus doesn’t contact you, if you want to play for them you have to earn it like everyone else,” said Smitty Ektnitphong, Nicole’s father and the head coach for the WHS girls’ soccer team. “It’s kind of an old school approach, I kind of like that you have to earn your spot.”
Nicole moved up to Gustavus well before classes started this fall to join the Gusties for their preseason training, but all the while she knew that she would have to make a good impression to be kept on the roster.
Gustavus doesn’t keep a junior varsity team, meaning that all players have to make the varsity roster of 24 or so players to stay on the team.
“The team is the team — when we train, everyone trains together,” Gustavus head coach Mike Stehlik said. “When we dress for games, everyone dresses. When we travel, everyone travels, as opposed to having a JV team where you make the decision and they’re really not really part of the first team. Having a good team chemistry is really important to us and having a tight-knit bond across the players and across the classes is also pretty important.”
Nicole approached preseason anxious to find out if she was good enough to make the cut, but after getting into a rhythm with the team her nerves subsided.
“I really wasn’t thinking of the tryout aspect of it, because basically it was just like practice,” Nicole Ektnitphong said. “We didn’t do any specific tryout, it was just like regular practice. I think just enjoying being there and not really worrying about the whole tryout aspect really helped me ease off the nerves that I had before coming in.”
It turned out that Nicole and the five other freshmen all made the roster, adding a strong incoming class to a young Gustie team that returned most of its experience this year in its sophomore and junior classes.
“She’s one of six freshmen that made the cut, so obviously that’s a really good looking class coming in,” Smitty Ektnitphong said. “I’m really happy about that.”
Stehlik has been impressed with what he has seen from Nicole so far, praising her attitude, competitiveness and level of effort as being ideally suited to the program.
Although Nicole has seen time on only about half of the team’s games in a bench role, Stehlik is excited to see how well to acclimates herself to the college level as her career develops.
“She’s a freshman, she’s raw, but you’ve got to look over a four-year career,” Stehlik said. “It’s hard to remember, but what were you like as a high school freshman? Were you the big dog? All of a sudden you go from being a high school senior and team captain to now you’re just one of many again and trying to earn everything again from the bottom up.”
Stehlik didn’t have much first-hand experience of Nicole’s ability before she showed up to preseason, but he had talked to St. Peter High School head coach Karl Larson, who had seen Nicole numerous times in games between the Saints and the Trojans.
“He did a background check — he talked with St. Peter head coach Karl Larson, he’s a Gustavus professor, they talked and he did mention that she would be worth taking a look at,” Smitty Ektnitphong said.
Stehlik was highly encouraged by Larson’s endorsement.
“One of the things he said is, ‘You’ve got her? She’s going to play hard for you, she’s always going to give you an effort,’” Stehlik said. “So to get an opposing high school coach say that about someone, what better can you get? Your own high school coach — especially if it’s your dad — they’ll say good things, but when you make an impression on another coach in your league, that says a lot.”
Stehlik has been highly successful during his 22 seasons at the helm of the Gusties, but recently the team has been hovering in the middle of the pack in an increasingly difficult Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, including a 3-8 overall record so far this year.
“We’ve just got to find a change to break through that,” Stehlik said. “We just need some players that can do that. The league got way competitive in the past couple of years. When I first started in the 1990s there were maybe three or four good teams. What’s changed a lot is you have to come out and play every game and the margin of winning and losing is a lot narrower than it used to be. You used to get by with having a couple of good players and some good athletes, now you’ve got to have the whole package.”
With Gustavus playing in a different formation than she was used to at WHS, Nicole has had to transition to a new position on the field. She has been playing up forward still, but mainly at the wing rather than the middle of the field.
“Gustavus plays different formations than we did in high school, so I think the tough part for me was just getting used to how I would position myself,” Nicole Ektnitphong said. “I still was playing forward, but just the aspect of their team tactics and formations and stuff, that was the biggest transition for me.”
Stehlik has been pleased with the intuition she has already shown in adapting to the position.
“Because of older players and depth in front of her we’ve got her out on the wing, so it’s kind of a totally new space on the field to be with the different movements and angles and things like that,” Stehlik said. “She’s really starting to pick those things up, so it shows she’s got a good sense about her. Now it’s about how creative and smooth can she be in that spot and then can she get to be a dynamic attacking player when she kind of gets the feel of that outside wing position.”
While Nicole describes being able to play soccer as a “bonus” during her time at Gustavus, her primary interest in the school was in its outstanding academic reputation.
“There was just something in my mind that always kept me coming back to Gustavus,” Nicole Ektnitphong said. “In the end it was the whole package deal for me. They are excellent in their academics, their academic program is top notch and they always strive for excellence in everything that they do, and I love that. It’s just an environment I would love to be in.”
She also said that Gustavus was a “happy medium” in terms of being close to home, but still far enough away to live an independent life and also take advantage of being closer to Mankato and the Twin Cities. She will also have family close by with her sister entering her senior year at Gustavus.
Nicole has had a hard time narrowing her academic interests, choosing to take classes in disparate fields such as biology and political science, while also announcing her ambition to try for a peace studies minor that will have her adding classes in world religions to her workload.
“It’s going to be really hard for me because I have so many interests,” Nicole Ektnitphong said. “I don’t know if I can just settle down into one particular thing, that’s why I’m studying such complete opposites like biology and political science.”
She has made use of the opportunity to continue her musical interests as well, playing her violin in one of the school’s orchestras, giving her another outlet to take full advantage of her time at the school.
“It’s opened a lot of doors for her,” Smitty Ektnitphong said. “I’m really happy for her.”
With a full class load, orchestra and a month left of soccer season, Nicole has had a busy first couple of months at Gustavus, but she wouldn’t have had things turn out any other way.
“I’m busy, but I’m excited,” Ektnitphong said. “I’ve come from such a busy lifestyle that I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”