From University of Rochester Athletics/Dennis O'Donnell
Since the day that she walked onto the University of Rochester campus as a first-year student in 2015, Shayna Levy had the same aspiration as any athlete: compete in the national championship tournament.
In the first seven matches in 2018, it looked like Levy's goal would be realized. Rochester sported a record of five wins, one loss, and one tie. The loss was a 2-0 decision against then-fourth-ranked Hardin Simmons College of Abilene, Texas. The tie was a 2-2 double overtime draw with SUNY Geneseo (#14 nationally). A week later, Rochester defeated #2 William Smith in Geneva. Back to back 1-0 wins over Oswego and Alfred (Levy scored the game winning goal on a penalty kick) put the Yellowjackets into the national poll at #18 in late September.
UR navigated through a rough six-game stretch and headed into the last four games – all at home – with a chance to play its way into consideration for the tournament with a sweep. The Yellowjackets won the first three and hosted Emory on Senior Day. It did not go as hoped. Emory won, 3-1.
"After Saturday, I thought that was it," Levy said. She spent the weekend coming to terms with the outcome. "The one thing that we had worked so hard for, seemed like it wasn't in the cards."
On Monday, Levy was watching her cell phone updating the bracket to see who would play who. She has friends at many schools. Suddenly, she stared wide-eyed at the phone. A friend texted a screen shot of one four-team pod in the women's bracket: Maine-Farmington at Middlebury. The second game was Rochester vs. Ithaca. She turned to a classmate sitting alongside her. "I think we are going to the NCAA Tournament," she said.
It was confirmed in a text message from head coach Sike Dardaganis a few minutes later. His message got right to the point: "We are going to the NCAAs!!!!!".
Rochester is traveling to Middlebury College in Vermont for the opening round of the tournament. UR will play Ithaca College on Saturday afternoon. Middlebury takes on Maine-Farmington. There are lots of familiar faces in the bracket: nine Rochester opponents from this season are in the 64-team field.
It will feel wonderful to pull on the UR colors again, this time with your collegiate goal in front of you. It's a feeling she's had before – and the first time, it came on the world stage.
In 2015, she was a senior at North Salem High School in Brewster, NY. Levy's club team coach had a player compete for the Israeli Women's National Team. He told the club players the Israeli coaches were looking for players for the Under-19 team. Levy traveled to Roslyn, Long Island, where on a tiny field, they had 15 young women train and try out for the Israeli U-19 head coach.
A Chance to Play Internationally
Israel was going to host the U-19 European Championship Tournament in the summer. Did Levy want to play? Now, she had to scurry and complete tasks that would allow her to finish high school early, travel to Israel, and live there while she trained and played for the national team. North Salem's principal helped her complete the tasks so she could graduate early and relocate. She had to apply for citizenship in Israel. Her maternal grandparents are Israeli and because her grandmother was born in Palestine, Levy met the requirements of the International Football Federation (FIFA), world soccer's governing body. By February, she was in Israel, living at the Wingate Institute with other Israeli national teams, including basketball and swimming.
Everyone on the U-19 team was either in school or in the Israeli Defense Forces, except for Levy and a teammate from Los Angeles. "I didn't know a word of Hebrew," Levy says with a smile, "so we learned together". They spent many hours training, doing yoga, traveling, and learning Hebrew together during Levy's six months in Israel.
The U-19s went to Russia for two weeks in March and played six matches against other European nations. They finished in third place, marking the first time an Israeli team medaled in a national soccer competition. Levy earned six 'caps' – the designation of representing her nation internationally on the soccer pitch.
She earned three more caps at the European Championships on home soil, playing in group matches against eventual Euro winner Sweden, France, and Denmark. The emotion sank in during pre-game; the players lined up at midfield with youngsters in front of them as the national anthem is played and the players sing.
"I was extremely prideful," Levy says. It's not an emotion that can be easily described; you're standing in a stadium with teammates, representing your nation in competition, thousands of people in the stands, parents, Israeli grandparents, family, and friends all tearful. "It was one of the first times I felt like an Israeli."
Levy admitted to being extremely nervous during the ceremony – and this coming when she was trying to remember the wording to the anthem so she could sing with her teammates.
Then the game began. The physical comparison was stark. "I don't think there was a girl on that team (Sweden) under 5'10," she said. "I'm pretty tall (5'9"), but we averaged about 5'5."
Her marking assignment was Stina Blackstenius who wound up as the outstanding player of the championship and scored six goals, two versus Israel. "I was the second best header of the ball on our team," Levy recalled, "so she was my mark. I knew I wasn't going to muscle her off the ball and she was fast, so I had to keep her in front of me." Blackstenius did not score when Levy was guarding her.
As fall approached (Israel was 0-3 in the Euro Championships), Levy earned three more caps playing for her country in Portugal at European qualifiers.
She was called up to the Senior National Team last November. During the Thanksgiving holiday period, she played against Austria and Finland in World Cup qualifiers.
For now, the NCAA tournament beckons. It is Rochester's first trip to the national tournament since 2010. She's been communicating with bunches of friends around the nation, including some who play for Ithaca.
"I've always wanted to have a surprise party," Levy said. "This is the best surprise I could have asked for."
With further surprises waiting, perhaps?