The Florida Gator soccer team celebrated “Senior Night” on a warm October afternoon in front of a crowd of over 700. The number 20 Gators were about to take on the eighth ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in a battle of ranked SEC teams. Before the match, the seven soon-departing Florida seniors were commemorated to the tune of a standing ovation from the home crowd and given bouquets of flowers. Among them were Julia Lester, the reliable center back in her fourth year of service for the Gators, and Vanessa Kara, a small, quick striker who just transferred to Florida from Drexel at the beginning of the year. Despite the difference in time they have spent in Gainesville, both are seniors, and on October 27, both were about to partake in their final regular season home game.
The match itself ended in a frustrating 1-1- overtime draw, despite the Gators creating more chances on the day.
Within the disappointing game, though, came an unforgettable moment… the Gators’ opening goal. Lester won the ball back high up on the right side of the field. She carried it through the space in front of her before roping a low pass past five South Carolina defenders to a free Deane Rose at the top of the box. In her typical fashion, the Canadian international coolly slotted the ball into the back of the net to put the Gators on the board.
Though Rose scored, the Florida players did not celebrate her achievement.
Instead they all quickly ran toward Lester. It was her first assist of the season. It was her first contribution to a goal or assist since 2017. Of course, it happened on Senior Night.
Her teammates knew how hard Julia worked not only that evening, but all year. She started every game of the season in central defense, never afraid to put her body on the line and dive into a tackle. Many of Julia’s family members that had never seen her play before they traveled to that senior night game. And, in her ceremonial end to Gator life, she was given the captain’s armband shortly before kickoff.
Now, she and fellow senior teammate Kara hope to keep their soccer careers going beyond college. Both will attempt to forge professional careers in the National Women’s Soccer League, the only professional women’s league in the United States.
A Long Time Coming
The 2020 NWSL Draft took place on January 16 in Baltimore, Maryland. With stellar senior seasons under their belts, both Lester and Kara garnered interest from professional teams leading up to the draft. Lester was mentioned in some NWSL mock drafts, and Kara even received word from a team that she was going to be drafted in the third round. So, Kara traveled to Baltimore for her big moment.
Neither was chosen.
Typical, Vanessa thought. She was being written off again.
“At first, it was really tough, but then I was like, ‘that’s never part of my story,’” said Kara, whose journey to Gainesville was rather rocky.
“No one ever thought I was good enough to play in college. No one really thought I could play in the SEC. I’ve always gone under the radar. I’m doing it again. Let’s see if I can do it one more time.”
She tore her ACL twice in high school in New Jersey, which effectively waned almost all college interest, until late in her junior year when Drexel finally extended an offer.
“A lot of people told me I wasn’t going to play Division One soccer, I couldn’t acclimate to the physicality of the game,” Kara said.
Thanks to the physical and mental strength she gained from her injuries, she flourished at Drexel. She set the school’s single season goals record en route to winning the Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year. She was selected to the All-CAA team three times. Kara has scored the second-most goals and registered the third-most assists in school history. She did not relish in her accolades, though.
“They had weekly awards that I was totally unaware that I was winning,” Kara said. “I always just had that mentality that I had to prove I was good enough to be there.”
Then, she tore her ACL a third time in 2018. The right knee, again. It forced her to miss an entire season, but she had already made her mark on Drexel’s history books. She wanted a new challenge. She wanted to defy the odds again. She wanted to transfer.
Through a connection with one of her trainers, Kara got in touch with Florida coach Becky Burleigh, and she traveled to Gainesville to meet the tenured head coach.
“Once I sat down with [Becky], I just knew. Like instant, one conversation with her,” Kara said, “This is a place for me. This is a coach that is going to help me the most. It just felt right.”
Kara transferred to Florida to use her final season of NCAA eligibility, and she was the Gators’ top scorer. The adjustment to SEC soccer, a much faster and physical brand of the game, was not a problem.
Yet, she still went undrafted.
The day after the draft, though, Kara received a call from Paul Riley, head coach of the reigning NWSL champion North Carolina Courage. He called to invite her to preseason training camp for a tryout. He invited two undrafted players, and Kara was one of them.
Like she did at Drexel, like she did at Florida, Kara is now going to try to make the most of this shot. She has been training in Gainesville with Julia Lester since January. They have been pushing each other physically and mentally, which has built on an already strong relationship.
“Right away we kind of just had a bond. I felt like she always had my back,” said Kara, “Her friendship has really been great for me and helped me become a better version of myself.”
Lester, who had also been overlooked the day of the draft, received a similar invitation shortly after the draft. Head coach of the Chicago Red Stars, Rory Dames, reached out to Gator coach Burleigh and expressed interest in Lester, who was invited to camp in Chicago to try to make the team.
Lester’s numerous in-game slide tackles show how committed and skilled a defender she is. Yet, she played most of her life further up the field. At the high school and club levels, she played as a winger, scoring plenty of goals.
Her performances for a national champion Tampa Bay United team brought the attention of many colleges, including the University of Florida and head coach Becky Burleigh.
Like Kara, Lester clicked with Burleigh from her first encounter with her.
“We talked to Becky for like four hours,” said Lester about her first visit to the university at age 16, “That was kind of when I knew that this was a good area for me to be in, the program, and the coaches, too.”
In her four years as a Gator, Lester played as a defender. She started at fullback, where her high energy and endurance levels were put to use. In her own words, she loves running.
She transitioned to center back after two years when spots were vacated by departing seniors. And the change was successful, As it turns out, Lester was a natural fit. In her final season, she was named to the All-SEC First Team and SEC Tournament First Team.
“I always knew that Julia had all the tools, and it was just a matter of how she was going to adapt at this level,” Burleigh said. “And she did that pretty quickly.”
Julia left for the “Windy City” on March 5. Kara traveled to North Carlina March 6. According to Lester, the tryout period is five to six weeks, but either could be cut at any time.
A Great Gator Legacy
The Florida soccer team has a strong history of players going onto the NWSL. Since the league’s inception in 2012, a Gator has been drafted every year except two (2014 and this year.)
Several Gators have even gone one step further and represented the United States on the national team, like Danielle Fotopoulos, Heather Mitts, Abby Wambach, and, more recently, Erika Tymrak.
Lester’s aspirations mirror the careers of these Florida greats; one day, she wants to play on the Senior National Team.
She knows the experience trying out against some of the best in the world in Chicago will help her. And, she emulates other successful Americans to make her dreams come true.
“Heather O’Reilly or Kelly O’Hara,” Lester said. “Those two players – their work ethic is insane. They leave it all on the field, which is what I try to do every single day, even in practice.”
No matter what happens in Chicago or North Carolina, the effect of being a Gator under Burleigh has had on the two players’ lives is invaluable. Both believe their coach has helped them grow in ways they never imagined.
“Becky has helped me a lot on the emotional and mental side, which is probably how I am today in the sense of a leader,” said Lester. “Becky really gets down to the nitty gritty… of who you want to be and why you want to be this way on and off the field.”
Leadership is important to Julia. That is why that Senior Night meant so much to her.
“I held that really close to my heart – being able to lead the team,” Lester said. “Once senior year was hitting, I didn’t realize how fast those three years prior went. So, I have to leave it all on the field.”
Though these two Gators will be moving on from the Gainesville they called home, you can bet both will leave it all on the field just like they did on that warm October “Senior Night.” But the reward this time is a spot on a professional team.
UPDATE: The coronavirus pandemic has caused the cancellation of all NWSL preseason games and has delayed the start of the season. With no announcement when the season will start, Lester and Kara wait with their teams.