Being a mentor
by Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor
Photos by Geoff Schneider/Sports Union - @GMSPhotoWNY
It’s never easy making the varsity team as an underclassmen. There is enough pressure on varsity players as there is, but being able to make the team - and get valuable minutes - as a youngster puts even more pressure on them.
Those that can survive playing early are able to grow into a bigger role on the team. For Tonawanda High School’s Emma Ljiljanich being able to make the varsity soccer team as an eight grader was a proud moment.
“I was super proud to make varsity as an eight grader, but so nervous. I wasn’t confident then and was afraid of making a mistake,” stated Ljiljanich. “Now I have played long enough to grow in confidence in my skill and knowledge of the game.”
Ljiljanich has been honing her skills for years with one of the best of travel teams in Western New York in the Western New York Flash. There, she has played in different positions that she may be playing for her high school team.
While at first she was a little aggravated playing all over the pitch, Ljiljanich realized it has helped to improve her game. She is able to see the field better and make quicker decisions than if she was just stuck in one position all the time.
Her soccer IQ has been better, and her game has taken on a whole new level.
“The Flash has made me think about game strategy and quick decision making. This skill development and confidence all carry over into any of my gameplay,” stated Ljiljanich. “I used to only see myself as a forward, then I joined a new team and they needed an outside back, so I stepped into that position. When I joined Flash, they needed me at midfield. I used to be bothered that I was being moved around when so many of my teammates were in dedicated positions. I now am comfortable and capable at my spot on the field. I am able to help in any role in a meaningful way.”
That includes being a leader.
With such a young team, Ljiljanich has stepped into a leadership role as a junior. She has learned over the years from the upperclassmen on what it takes to lead on and off the field - and as adapted her game to do just that.
While there was a handful of seniors on the team, Ljiljanich slowly started to take over the leadership role as the season went on. She has evolved into the person she wants to be on and off the pitch, and the rest of the players see that.
“I feel that I have evolved as a leader this year. I’m a junior captain that started the season deferring to seniors, but found that others were looking to hear my voice. I learned to speak up and found that I communicated details well and tried to keep the focus on soccer,” stated Ljiljanich. “I think being a mentor is a big responsibility of a leader. My teammates trust me to share my knowledge and know that my goal is to help the team improve and ultimately win more games next season.”
If this past year as taught us anything it’s that you have to patient and willing to adapt. Being able to adapt on the fly is something that student-athletes have had to do all year long. The 2020 soccer season was supposed to start in August - and it didn’t get going until Oct. 1.
Recruiting has been hampered because students haven't been able to get on campus to visit the school’s of their choice. It has made everything pretty hectic and frustrating at times.
“Extremely hard, but my focus has been on navigating my academic work load and positioning myself to be a strong candidate no matter what soccer may or may not bring,” stated Ljiljanich. “Probably a lot more taxing. We can’t travel so we can’t be seen or visit campuses. But it’s not all about soccer for me. I want to go to a small college with a program that believes that I can contribute. I love the sport and want to continue to play.”
She hasn’t been playing this sport alone - either. She has been on this journey with her younger sister, Lily. They are both captains, and both play in the midfield. There are times it helps that they are siblings because it can make it easier for them to know where they are on the pitch.
There are times they get frustrated with each other, after all they are sisters, but it gets quickly squashed - and they can move on to the next play.
“I actually enjoy it! We understand each other. Even if we get frustrated with each other, we get over it,” stated Ljiljanich. “It is always fun to talk with each other at home about what went well on the field.”