For those who closely follow the Hastings Tribune’s sports section, Sophia Conant is known as a distance runner.
She has been earning medals at cross country and track meets since her freshman year at Adams Central. In cross country, Conant is a three-time medalist in Class C at the state meet, finishing fourth her freshman year, third as a sophomore and fifth last year. On Friday, she will try for her fourth medal at the state meet.
What few know about her is that apparently she’s a pretty darn good soccer player — so good that the 5-foot, 6-inch blond-haired, freckled girl is one of the newest recruits to the University of Northern Iowa, a Division I college soccer program, although she has never played on a soccer team in high school.
How does that happen?
“I’ve played (soccer) every year since I was 4 — so 13 years,” said Conant, whose father, Jason Conant, is a former boys soccer coach at Hastings High. “We’ve been this soccer family — at least when all my siblings were young — but now I’m the only one who plays. I’ve just loved it from the start.”
Sophia started playing girls club soccer in elementary and on into junior high when she began having conversations with her parents about playing soccer in college. And while that may seem a little overambitious, for a girls soccer player the timing of that conversation was right on schedule.
“Soccer is such a different sport with recruiting,” Sophia said. “It is the earliest recruiting sport for women. Some girls are committing their freshman, sophomore year.”
It was during those conversations that Sophia’s parents told her that she could transfer to Hastings High to play high school soccer if that was what she wanted to do since Adams Central doesn’t have a soccer program.
“My parents left the decision up to me,” Sophia said. “That was probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make and it was hard because I was an eighth-grader.”
In addition to the conversation with her parents, Sophia was being questioned by her club soccer teammates from Hastings who hoped she would transfer schools and play soccer with them.
One thing that made the decision even more difficult is while Sophia loved and was dedicated to soccer, she also loved her school.
“The closer I got to my freshman year, I couldn’t get myself to make the decision to transfer just because I loved Adams Central so much,” Sophia said. “I love the people, the school, the environment and it was going to break my heart to have to leave.”
By that time, Sophia was playing with the Nebraska Select Girls Soccer Club, a club team based in Kearney, as well as playing on a winter indoor league soccer with the girls on the Hastings High soccer team. Her parents researched the option of her moving to a more competitive club team in Lincoln or Omaha to help her college recruitment aspects if she opted out of transferring to Hastings High.
“In the end, I chose to stay (at Adams Central) and it was a relief to say, ‘I get to stay where I really want to stay’ but I knew I would have to have the challenge of trying to push myself,” Sophia said. “Without the resources here, I knew I was going to have to find other ways.”
That’s why Sophia continues to play with Nebraska Select, a team she dubs the biggest and most competitive club team outside of Lincoln and Omaha.
Her spring club season starts in late May immediately after the state track meet in Omaha and runs through early August, ending just before the start of school. With that team, Sophia travels to states surrounding Nebraska to play against stiff competition.
In the fall, she continues to play with Nebraska Select only playing in-state teams one game each weekend.
And that’s a good thing as Sophia tries to balance that with her second love of running as a member of the Adams Central cross country team.
Sophia started running track in junior high and became rather successful in the one-mile run her eighth-grade year. So when she decided to stay at Adams Central, she signed up for high school cross country.
“I knew the cross country team was awesome and close and they did team dinners so when I decided to stay here, I knew I had to run cross country,” Sophia said outside Adams Central earlier this week where she was preparing for her fourth and final appearance at the Nebraska State High School Cross Country Championships in Kearney. “Coming in I had no idea what I was doing, but I have just grown to love it and grown to love the team.”
Sophia also has continued to run track at Adams Central in high school; however, soccer took precedence for the first time in high school during her freshman year.
Each year, Sophia’s club team plays in a college showcase tournament where college coaches attend and look for prospective recruits. That particular year, the tournament was scheduled for the weekend of the state track meet in Omaha.
“I had to realize if I was going to go to Adams Central, I had to take every opportunity to be seen by colleges,” Sophia said.
With that in mind, she bowed out of competing at the district meet, leaving spots open for her teammates to try and qualify for the state event.
“I think that’s when (Coach Toni) Fowler knew I was really going to be pursuing my soccer dream,” Sophia said. “I know she’s accepted it and has been so encouraging about it, too.”
Fowler said she has always known that for many students like Conant, cross country isn’t their first sport and she’s OK with that.
“Soccer is her first love,” Fowler said. “I do think she had to find the balance herself going into cross country season if there was still soccer stuff going on and the same in the spring with track. It all comes down to balance.”
During the summer, Fowler said that Conant wouldn’t run near as many miles as the rest of her cross country runners but Fowler also knew that Conant was working hard on the soccer field.
“I’d rather have Sophia run with us and do winter and summer soccer leagues than not run with us at all,” she said.
During the winter, Sophia continues to play soccer in an indoor league with members of the Hastings High team. While the team is comprised of Hastings High players, the league isn’t affiliated with the school, giving Sophia the option to play.
“Her dad used to be my coach at the high school at one point back in the day so he’s the one who asked me if there was any way he could get Sophia on one of the teams,” said Hastings High coach Chris Pedroza. “I’ve always known Sophia and she’s always been passionate about soccer, so I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Sophia.”
Pedroza said he has been impressed by Sophia’s work ethic and her talents and knows that it is all because of her dedication and hard work.
“Because of her great soccer knowledge, she’s always two steps ahead in her thinking of where players are going to be and always thinking in regard to the next play on the soccer field,” Pedroza said.
Sophia also has played with the Olympic Development Program, which brings together some of the state’s best soccer players. Those games have taken her even further out of state, including a major tournament in Wisconsin.
It was through her involvement with that program that Sophia was put in contact with the University of Northern Iowa and attended a camp there recently.
“My big goal has been to play Division I soccer because I’ve seen Division I schools play and I love that level,” Sophia said. “I think it will be a good challenge for me.”
Playing for a Division I school after opting not to play high school soccer is something that Sophia knows is rare.
“I haven’t heard of anyone who is going to play in college that hasn’t played in high school,” she said with a laugh. “There were definitely people who thought it was kind of crazy for me to think I could not play in high school and still look to play in college.”
Sophia said she understands why her going to a Division I school to play soccer may come as a shock to some people in this area.
“No one around here knows unless I tell them,” she said. “There is no way they could know because I don’t play in Hastings hardly at all.”
The only exception would be her friends and a few others at Adams Central.
“Most of my classmates know because I’ve always been the soccer girl,” she said with a laugh.