Five years, four coaches, two surgeries, two schools — Penn women’s soccer’s Paige Lombard has seen it all.
Entering her final season, Lombard has once again been trusted with the reins to Quakers’ coach Nicole Van Dyke’s defense, which only let in a stingy 11 goals under her leadership last season.
In the previous campaign, which was also Lombard’s first playing for the Red and Blue, the Miami transfer took the unusual step of becoming a team captain halfway through the season, a role she has reprised this year as well.
But for Lombard, a midseason captaincy is just another seemingly standard event in what has been an unconventional collegiate athletic career, one marred by misfortune but also filled with promise and success.
The Belleair Bluffs, Fla., native began her journey at Miami, five hours from home. As a freshman, Lombard started in the Hurricanes’ first five games before tearing her ACL in a game against Pitt, her first of two season-ending injuries.
Returning from such a major injury has never proven easy, and a coaching change did not ease Lombard’s transition back into the team either. While she started nine of the 17 games she played in that season, not all was well for the soon-to-be-former Hurricane.
“There were some deeper things that I wasn’t really happy with, especially with soccer,” Lombard said. “I think it’s hard when playing college athletics because it’s such a huge part of your daily life, so if you’re really not happy within your sport it’s hard to be happy in general or content with where you are.
“So when I was not completely content with the soccer there, there started to be other things that made me think, ‘I don’t know if I really like this.’”
The thought of leaving behind both family and friends in Florida was difficult, according to Lombard, but the thought of spending two more years with rumblings of discontent was arguably more upsetting, and so she made the decision to leave after her sophomore year.
The unfortunate reality of women’s soccer, a world both underfunded and underdeveloped, had made Lombard come to prioritize the value of her education.
“I didn’t want my academics to suffer at all,” she said. “From a realistic perspective you have to think about after school and what’s going to help prepare you for your future. But I also came from a really competitive conference, the ACC, so I didn’t want my athletics to suffer either. So I had very high standards for where I was looking. Obviously the Ivy League was up there.”
Penn particularly caught Lombard’s eye, and so while making the jump to a different school posed its own challenges and an uncertain future, she went for the door in hopes of finding a new home at Rhodes Field.
But even before preseason practices had begun, Lombard came face-to-face with a demon from her past when she suffered yet another torn ACL, forcing her to undergo her second surgery and miss the entire 2014 season. Another curveball came when the Quakers hired Van Dyke to replace Darren Ambrose for the 2015 campaign, making her Lombard’s fourth head coach in as many years.
While this would technically be her senior year, it would only be her first playing for Penn, and Lombard was once again put in the now familiar territory of tumult with injury and coaching concerns surfacing once again.
This time was different.
Lombard has since showed that she belongs playing for the Red and Blue, and her decision to sign up for the Quakers’ latest campaign is a testament to that.
“I planned on a fifth year [of college] because I didn’t feel like I had gotten enough soccer out of my four years yet,” she said.
The trust between Lombard and Van Dyke has played a key component in Lombard’s excellence on the pitch.
“She got that [captainship] by always coming out and being that leader without the title and really making people around her better,” Van Dyke said. “She always wants the most out of people, she’s very supportive of the coaches [and] she’s excited about not just her own legacy here at Penn but the future legacy of Penn women’s soccer.”
Now entering her fifth and final season, Lombard’s legacy is left to be determined.
She says few things would be as sweet as an Ivy league title and an NCAA tournament berth, something she has never experienced.
For her, it’s all or nothing.
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