Heart surgery in her freshman year. Torn ACL in first game of her junior year.
It has hardly been a best-times-of-your-life like story for Emma Dolcetti of the Gonzaga University Bulldogs.
The Kal Laker grad is, however, healthy and scoring some big goals this NCAA Division 1 women’s soccer season. Dolcetti had a team-leading five goals going into a season-ending Saturday game against the University of Portland Pilots.
After 11 months of intense rehab with the Gonzaga trainer, Dolcetti was cleared for contact in August during the preseason schedule. She red-shirted last year which allowed her to practise with the team.
“Both my surgeon and trainer have been really happy with the rehab,” said Dolcetti, a 5-foot-9 dynamo. “I’ve had to wear a brace this season which was really hard to get used to but I’m hoping to get out of it this spring. My knee feels good and strong but I’ll have to continue to work at strengthening it in the off-season.”
The Bulldogs were 7-9-2 overall and 0-5-2 in the West Coast Conference, losing a lot of one-goal games. Despite the down time due to injuries, Dolcetti has fine-tuned her play at a high level.
“We’re able to play against some of the best girls in the country,” she said. “My sophomore year, we played UCLA and Kara Lang. It was really weird to be playing against someone I had gotten an autograph from a few years before. At the same time it was so much fun. It opened up a whole new world of soccer for me. I’ve been able to learn a ton through video and just watching how other girls play.”
Gonzaga head coach Amy Edwards made it clear that despite missing last year, Dolcetti would be filling a big leadership role since the Bulldogs lost three graduating senior captains.
“Coming back from her ACL injury with so much renewed energy, she has really blossomed into a leader this year,” said Edwards. “It’ll be interesting to see what she’s like in her final year because I don’t even think she has scratched the surface of what she might become.”
Edwards also credited Dolcetti for making the Bulldogs dangerous off set pieces, like corners, free kicks and long throw-ins.
Added Dolcetti: “I’m very vocal on the field and they wanted to make sure that I didn’t shy away from that after the injury.
“I’ve had to improve a lot on being strong and holding the ball. We switched our formation this season to a 4-5-1 with me being the one forward. It was hard getting used to going 1 vs 4 defenders. It became really important for me to be strong enough to hold the ball and wait to combine with the midfielders.”
The Gonzaga season consists of 20 games and eight conference games. The bids for the NCAA tournament depend on the strength of the conference and the rankings.
“Some of the conference losses have been really hard. We have one of the toughest conferences in the nation. The season started with four out of nine being in the top-25 in the country. Unfortunately, we’ve suffered four ACL injuries this season and I think the fatigue set in for some of the games. But, although we lost to Pepperdine (Wave near Malibu) 1-0, we were able to draw a positive out of it. They were ranked fourth in the country at the time, and it was encouraging for us to see that we could play with a team like that. We’ve improved a ton since I’ve been here and we know we can play with anyone.”
Dolcetti’s favourite road trips have been to San Diego and Malibu. The Bulldogs fly everywhere except for games versus the University of Idaho Vandals, Washington State Cougars and Eastern Washington Eagles.
She loves the atmosphere at home games, where a very close-knit, smaller school community has bred a super fan base. And she knows what Edwards is all about.
“Coach Edwards’ style is very direct. She expects a lot from us because she knows we’re capable. She’s been with some very respectable teams like Missouri and Notre Dame and she’s brought some of their style of play with her. We focus a lot on possession and conditioning through playing.”
The Bulldogs lift weights year-round and do a lot of video and analysis. They swim, spin, box and play futsol in the off-season. Spring season is the most difficult since the Dawgs lift three or four times a week, play a similar schedule, and condition in between.
Dolcetti, who scored three times in six games as a freshman and three goals as a sophomore, hasn’t taken in a college football game yet, but plans to catch a Spokane Shock Arena Football game next spring.
The former Kal female athlete-of-the-year is double majoring in criminal justice and psychology. With her redshirt and a fifth year to play, she graduates in May and will start her masters next year in school counseling
“Spokane has definitely grown on me. The campus is beautiful and now that I’m familiar with the city and downtown, I really like it here. Spokane Valley and Coeur d’Alene remind me a lot of the Okanagan. I love it when I get a chance to go out there.”
She stayed in Spokane last summer to rehab her knee, while working soccer and basketball camps. She and a few teammates scrimmaged with the men’s team which helped her regain her touch.
“The Canadian girls are all close. Sarah Rhodes (four goals and seven assists) and I have been playing together since we were 13 and lived together for all four years. We work really well together on the field and it’s going to be very emotional to say goodbye.
“Anna Lund is from Kelowna and we knew each other before she got here. She and I take road trips back home together. Susan Brown is a transfer goalkeeper from Calgary. She fits right in with her accent. We’re all bugged about our accents but I just bug them back.”
Dolcetti, a big Barcelona FC fan, is grateful for the coaching she received from the late Andy Waughman in Vernon youth soccer.
“Andy was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. I have his initials on the back of my cleats and I think of him before every game. I also wouldn’t be here without my parents (Reni and Glenda). They’ve sacrificed so much for me to be here and I’m so thankful for their support. My dad (a former Team Canada basketball player) always made sure I had everything I needed to be able to train at the highest level.
“He’s someone I will always admire for his strength and work ethic. He understands the pressure and determination it takes to train at high levels and I know I can always count on him for support and advice.”
Dolcetti spends a lot of her free time with the Gonzaga Student Athlete Advisory Committee, putting together community service events for athletes.
“The elementary schools in our area of Spokane are very low income and it puts life back into perspective when I get to go read to the kids. I’m also involved in a service learning class this semester which means I volunteer at a women’s shelter and a orphaned boys ranch.”