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UConn women’s soccer: How former walk-on Sofia Leone became a key player for the Huskies

The senior midfielder wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team when she arrived for preseason as a freshman.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn needed a goal. The Huskies trailed Colgate 1-0 five minutes in the second half, but it went beyond the scoreboard. Margaret Rodriguez’s squad played a flat, uninspired first half and trailed to a winless Colgate squad that lost to Fairfield — a team UConn beat comfortably.

Late in the first half, Rodriguez switched things up by inserting a handful of subs looking for a spark. One of those players was senior midfielder Sofia Leone.

With forward Izzy Lynch out on the wing, Leone found herself in the position of striker as the attack progressed up the field. She slipped past a ball-watching defensive midfielder into the box between two center defenders. Fellow Husky Regan Schiappa occupied one defender with a run towards net so Leone tucked into the other defender’s blindspot.

Kess Elmore blazed up the sideline with the ball, spotted the wide-open Leone in the middle of the box and delivered a low cross. Leone’s first touch popped the ball into the air but she recovered by bringing it down with her chest before turning and placing the ball into the side-net to knot the game at one goal apiece.

In the 68th minute, Leone subbed off. As she came to the bench, it was hard to miss the full-team celebration that greeted her. It certainly wasn’t lost on the head coach.

“For her to get that goal, it just sums up my team,” Rodriguez said. “We’re all rooting for each other, that’s what we need.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As a three-time captain and a two-time All-County player at Bay Shore High School in New York, Leone wasn’t short on Division I interest in the recruiting process. At one point, she committed to Binghamton in the America East but didn’t feel the way she expected after making her decision. Leone wasn’t happy, so she decommitted and began looking around again.

Her club coach had connections at UConn so Leone got in touch. Since it was already late in the recruiting process, all the Huskies were willing to offer was a tryout in preseason. There was no handshake agreement that she’d make the team. The future of Leone’s soccer career laid in her own hands when she arrived in Storrs in August 2016.

But that’s exactly what she was looking for.

“I wanted to come somewhere where I was going to work really, really hard to see the field,” Leone said. “Somewhere that was going to push me to reach my maximum potential. So I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

During camp, she did enough to make the roster — but not much beyond that. Buried on a loaded roster that featured the likes of Rachel Hill, Stephanie Ribeiro and Tori Patterson, Leone played in just one contest all season, logging 31 minutes. She wasn’t even part of the traveling squad during the year. But Leone didn’t let herself get down about her lack of playing time.

“As a freshman, it’s all about your confidence,” she said. “You have to remind yourself you came here for a reason and you have to leave your mark and, like I said, it’s just believing in yourself and having great teammates.”

With that mindset, Leone went to work in the offseason with the goal of earning more minutes. It took longer than she might’ve hoped as a sophomore but Leone eventually broke through and proved herself hard to take out as she finished the season as one of seven players to record over 1,000 minutes.

As a junior, Leone’s role diminished as she started less and saw action in few games than she did the year prior. Then, going into senior year, Leone was hit with another setback when she sprained her ankle early in preseason. But once again, she never got down and went right back to work, pushing hard to get herself ready for the regular season.

The goal was not just a result of the work she put in to get back on the field, it was also the culmination of everything she’s put in over the last four years.

“Oh my gosh, it’s incredible,” Leone said. “That was my first goal, so my teammates push me to be the best. It’s so nice having so many people behind me.”

However, she was quick to brush off all the attention of the goal and flip it back on her teammates.

“I couldn’t describe a better feeling,” Leone said about scoring the game-tying goal. “This win was really important for our team. We’re hungry and we’re climbing and it feels great to walk away with great teammates. On to tomorrow.”

“I’m just happy to be a Husky.”