In one of the many homes that dot the hills of Berkeley, Calif., rests freshman defender Esther Schmidt’s empty bedroom.
Just over one month ago Schmidt had never laid her eyes upon Madison, or even Wisconsin, for that matter. Schmidt had never considered attending UW or playing soccer for the Badgers until she walked through the door on her first day of high school biology and met her teacher.
“Rodney Kopish opened my eyes [to Wisconsin],” Schmidt said. “[Kopish was] from [Wisconsin] and he [attended] school here. He started telling me about [UW], and it just caught my eye.”
The attraction only grew from there. While examining universities to attend, Schmidt heard negative publicity pertaining to almost all other colleges, and there was only one criticism of Wisconsin that bothered her.
“The only [drawback] I heard was the weather,” Schmidt said. “And hopefully I can handle that.”
Ironically, it was cold weather that brought Schmidt and UW women’s soccer head coach Dean Duerst together.
Schmidt sent out letters to schools alerting them of upcoming tournaments she would be playing in. It was one of these letters that ended up on the desk of Duerst and made him take notice and reply with interest.
The Raleigh (N.C.) Area Girls Soccer Association tournament, where Schmidt was set to play, coincided with the NCAA championships, in which Duerst would be in attendance. The coach and player’s two paths were now set to cross.
Duerst’s first glimpse of the girl from California was amidst the snow in distant North Carolina.
“I knew she was going to be playing, so I went specifically there to see her,” Duerst said. “It was odd because I was watching her in the snow in Raleigh.”
Esther’s interest in UW increased as time prolonged. St. John’s (N.Y.), DePaul and Columbia all courted Schmidt, but they all fell along the wayside as she took recruiting trips to each school. First was St. John’s, which was crossed off the list of possibilities because of mediocre academics. Then fell DePaul, due to a sub-par soccer team that wasn’t as strong as she had expected. Columbia had the strong academics and atmosphere she longed for, but like DePaul, its soccer team didn’t satisfy her. Plus, there was a problem in personnel.
“The coach was kind of a flake,” Schmidt said.
Just as Schmidt’s interest grew in UW, so did Duerst’s desire for her on his squad. Although Duerst never formally recruited Schmidt, he coveted her more and more as time ticked away.
“Esther [was] somebody that we became more interested in during our conversations,” said Duerst. “She had other choices and other things to look at. I just told her that we are a very competitive team, and it would be tough to make it, but I thought she could, and she’s proved it.”
With only rumors, letters and a brief face-to-face meeting with Duerst to go on, the decision was made: UW or bust.
Three factors made Wisconsin Schmidt’s final choice. First was its recognized status as one of the best academic institutions in the nation. Secondly, it wasn’t home. Schmidt wanted to expand her horizons beyond the West Coast, because she already knew everything about California. Finally, UW satisfied her desire to play for a strong soccer team.
The freshman’s first trip to campus has been her only one so far. Her first experience in Madison was her arrival for soccer tryouts and the infamous SOAR program. Stepping off the bus with all of her personal belongings, Schmidt questioned how she was going to get to her new home.
“When I got off the bus, I was like, ‘How am I going to get to my dorm with all this stuff?'” Schmidt said. “Then this lady out of the blue offers to give me ride to my dorm. It turned out it was the ex-mayor’s wife. That’s a good way to start your trip.”
Schmidt is not alone, though. Every year UW has a few soccer players who have yet to walk on the campus.
“Anybody is taking a risk in wherever they go to school,” Duerst said. “It’s going to be a challenge. It’s not going to be easy. We’re trying to recruit the personality that will take that risk. Players have strengths and weaknesses, and she has shown some real potential, and right now she’s a pretty well-rounded as a player.”
As for Schmidt’s take on the college life thus far, she is not disappointed. With UW ranked 23rd in the nation and the Big Ten season set to begin Friday, all prior options seem distant now.
“I think this is definitely the place that was meant for me,” Schmidt said. “It’s so much better than I expected. I heard all these great things about [UW], and it’s way better. Now I just have to make it through the winter.”