Westport's Toole enjoys freshman season with UConn soccer
Updated 2:43 pm, Thursday, November 20, 2014
When Sabrina Toole decided to attend the University of Connecticut to play for its soccer team, there was no expectation she would contribute right away. To start as a freshman on defense for a NCAA tournament hopeful isn't common.
And then it happened. Toole's name was called in the Huskies first game against Northeastern. She went on to make 14 more starts, but none more anxiety-filled than the first.
"I wasn't really paying much attention (before the game)," Toole said. "When I heard (head coach Len Tsantiris) call my name I thought I was going to throw up. Surprisingly I played well because the other center back (senior Gabrielle Charno) talked me through everything."
Toole, who spent time in the Westport Soccer Association as a youth, was a four-year starter for St. Joseph High School. Toole was named All-FCIAC in each of her four seasons, named All-State in three and was named All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in her junior and senior years.
Tsantiris became aware of Toole when college teammate Wayne Mones -- a coach for Yankee United's U15 club team -- notified him. The Huskies coaching staff scouted the young defender and believed she would be capable of competing at the highest level.
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"I remember the first time I met her I thought to myself that she was a good player, but never realized how good she was until I saw her a few times," said Mones, who is also the head coach at ND-Fairfield. "Part of Sabrina's game is that she's not flashy; she has all the parts needed to succeed at the highest level."
Before arriving in Storrs, Toole played for the WPSL Yankee Ladies, a semiprofessional team based out of Trumbull that Mones also coaches. That, along with moving to campus in July, gave her time to get adjusted to the demands of a collegiate season.
That didn't mean there still weren't nerves.
"I was extremely nervous," Toole said. "I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know if I could play at a high level. The girls were nice right way and really easy to talk to. I wouldn't have gotten through it without them."
There wasn't a plan for Toole to start right away, but she impressed the UConn coaching staff in preseason training and was on the field in the team's season-opener.
"Did I think Sabrina would be a starter? No," Tsantiris said. "I didn't think that, but she earned it."
It didn't take long for Toole to adjust to the speed of the game. Tsantiris also said Toole handled the pressure of being a freshman defender well.
"It's not that easy to start a young kid as center back, and she did a great job," Tsantiris said. "She's very poised on the ball, she does everything a good defender does; she fights for the ball, and she's got very good skills defensively."
Toole made 15 starts (18 appearances) for UConn, which went 12-4-4 during the regular season.
The Huskies (14-4-5) entered the American Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 4 seed, and upset top-seeded Central Florida in the semifinals before defeating No. 3 South Florida in the final on penalty kicks to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
"I can't even explain how terrifying it was to watch," said Toole, who didn't play in the conference tournament. "I had to stand there to watch; when (USF) missed their first two, we breathed a sigh of relief. We all could relax."
UConn defeated New Hampshire in the tournament opener 2-0 last week, and will travel to Penn State in the round of 32 on Friday. The Huskies fell 3-1 to the Nittany Lions during the regular season.
"In the beginning it seemed so far away," Toole said of qualifying for the tournament. "It was a long hard road ahead; when we got closer to (the conference tournament), we believed. "You could see it. We may not be the best but we're the hardest working team."
Toole hopes to make an impact for the Huskies in future seasons, too.
"I just want to keep improving and keep winning, honestly," Toole said. "I want to win the conference again. If we don't win NCAAs I want to make it farther next year."