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  • Matt Ondesko

Earning her minutes

By Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor Photos: Geoff Schneider/Sports Union

Every year is different. Every team is different. That’s what makes sports and being an athlete great, you never know what you are going to walk in to.

That’s why every year an athlete makes sure that he or she is ready to go from the first day of practice. Cracking a starting lineup is never easy. The talent level on the pitch makes it harder and harder to earn starting to minutes.

But, no player wants to sit on the bench. They fee helpless like that aren’t helping the team. They want to be out there and contribute right away to the success just like everyone else.

Grand Island High School sophomore soccer player Payton Khadra knows what it is like to fight for every minute out on the pitch. The midfielder is on a pretty loaded team and minutes are tough to come by.

This isn’t your ordinary run of the mill soccer team. The Vikings boast young ladies who play for Global Premier Soccer (GPS), Empire Soccer and the Western New York Flash. Next too St. Mary’s High School, who boast a starting 11 made up mostly of WNY Flash players, the Viking are one of the deepest teams in Western New York.

“It has been very challenging having a team full of talented players from GPS, Empire, Flash and other teams from WNY, and competing for a starting spot on the field at this level,” stated Khadra. “I feel that Flash has prepared me well to be here, and to make a difference. Making a difference on this team is being there when my teammates need me to be there. My goal is to be at the right place at the right time, and to be an outside option for the defense or forwards and to transition quickly from offense to defense and help all around.”

Just a sophomore, Khadra holds down a very important role on the team. Her midfield play is important to the success of the rest of the players around her. Looking at her stats might suggest that she isn’t in the play a lot.

Look again.

Sometimes stats lie. Sure she isn’t the leading scorer on the team, or have the most assists. That isn’t her job. Her job is to hold down the midfield and make the tough plays. With only three in the back, Khadra is tasks to make the runs up and down the field.

She is looked upon to get that ball in the box when the team has possession, but also needs to help out the defense and comeback and take care of the other team’s forwards and midfielders.

“In the midfield, you have to move up and down the field all the time, especially when there are only three in the back. My job is to move up and down the left and right sides of the field and create plays by sending the ball through the box and coming back and defending the forwards from the other team,” stated Khadra. “I enjoy playing midfield. I feel like I have a major role for the team, and it makes me want to work harder knowing that I have my team counting on me on both sides of the field, to come back and help defend or be at the back of the box ready for a cross.”

Playing in the midfield is hard enough when you are 6-foot-3, but at Khadra’s size playing the positions is even harder. Khadra knows she won’t be able to out muscle everyone on the opposing team.

There will be time that she will have to use her speed and soccer sense to out smart the other players. Being tiny could be a disadvantage for some players, but Khadra also see’s it as an advantage. 
She can use her speed to get away from defenders and make those runs that some players might not be able to make.

“ Everyone on the team talks about how small I am compared to everyone else. It is a little bit of a disadvantage playing against bigger and stronger girls, but also an advantage making me faster and allowing me to make big runs down the field. Being physical is one of the things I need during games,” Khadra. “Playing against the stronger defenders and forwards from the other teams makes me be physical than I have to be. Fouls aren’t usually given by me because I keep it clean with arms down and shoulders aren't being thrown. Being physical to me is getting or keeping the ball, and not throwing people on the ground is how I think about it. I try to get around the player using my speed and going for the ball is what I try to do.”

When the high school season finally comes to an end, it isn’t the end for Khadra. There is no offseason as Khadra starts her travel season with the Flash. The Flash are known to send a lot of young women to Division I, II and III colleges.

They play in a very competitive league in the ECNL. Playing that type of competition has only made Khadra better. She can use those league games to get better and have a better understanding of the game.

Also, have a different coach, with different ideas, isn’t a bad thing - either.

“Playing for the Flash over the years has helped me so much. From Pedro to Angela everyone has helped me in some way become a stronger player mentally and physically than I was the year before. I have played with Aaron and Alex Sahlen over the summer, and it was an opportunity that was given to me. It was an experience of playing with the talented girls in my age group that Flash had. They have talented players that I played with at my beginning years with Flash. Playing with them has been challenging for me, but when I have the chance to play with them, it helps me become a better overall player,” explained Khadra. “Last year was my first opportunity to play in the ECNL. I played in a few games, and it was very fast pace. I played right forward, next to some of the top players in WNY, including Shae O’Rourke and Gabby Gambino. Playing with them made me work harder than I ever have getting back and helping with the defense and helping get up the field, since the game was faster than I have played.”

Playing this much soccer, or any sport really, can be tough on the body. Even the best athletes in the world take some time off. Keeping your body healthy is the main concern for soccer players - especially with all the pounding the can take.

Khadra knows that there is risks with playing this much. She also knows that she needs to take the right measures after games and practices to keep her fresh and ready to go.

“Injuries are a big part of playing, and if you don’t keep your body fresh, you will get hurt. I stretch all the time. I don’t take warm-ups lightly, because who knows what could happen if I do,” stated Khadra. “I also make time for strength training with Jenna Raepple at Proformance. She helps me keep injuries to a minimum, while also making my muscles stronger. At home, I roll out my quads and hamstrings, since those muscles get tight very easily.”

Khadra hopes one day that all this soccer will pay off down the road. Just two years into her soccer career, Khadra knows that scouts are already looking for the next big thing to help their programs.

While playing for the Flash it’s hard not to notice the college coaches in the stands. It makes plying the game you love just a little bit harder when you know that every single move you make it being watched.

Athletes will lie and say they don’t notice those types of things, but they do.

“During my games at Flash, it’s difficult not to worry about who is watching, especially at big tournaments, such as States and Regionals, which we attended in 2019. Everyone is worried about what colleges are attending and how big the schools are, but my focus is the game and working harder so I can attend the camps and do well there,” stated Khadra. “Focusing on who is watching won’t push you to become any better on the field, it will only make you nervous, which is something you don’t need during a game. People watching is part of the game. College coaches are like everyone else who is watching. To see you play. It is nerve wracking, but focusing on what you can physically and mentally do to make your game better is what matters the most.”

Before all the college stuff, however, Khadra is just enjoying her time with the Vikings. She gets to play along side some great players in Avery Mondoux, Brooke Amato and Ella Rudney, just to name a few.

Playing along side the likes of Mondoux and Amato has only made Khadra better on and off the field. The team has a special bond and all the players just feed off it.

“Brooke and Avery have helped my game so much over the season. Playing with them is easy, because of the talent they bring. I know that if I put the ball in the box, rather Brooke or Avery will be there ready to put it in,” stated Khadra. “They have helped me get better over the season because they find spaces that I see them running into, and I can place it at their feet. During the NFL Championship game, Brooke found me on the opposite side of the box, and I saw her, and we connected and I just placed it in the goal.”


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