No sophomore slump for unlikely Yale star

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Minutes into Yale's practice Friday, with sophomore star Crysti Howser already on the sideline after turning an ankle while warming up, a car traveling on one of the roads adjacent to the practice field plowed into the back of a stopped semitrailer, leaving the occupants unhurt but the car far the worse for wear.

Apparently, the bad luck that has plagued the women's soccer team is seeping into the soil in New Haven.

Howser recovered in time to play all 90 minutes in Saturday's 1-0 win over Harvard, but the rash of injuries that began when senior keeper Chloe Beizer was lost for the season during the first week of practice and continued when senior Mimi Macauley turned an ankle in practice Thursday have forced coach Rudy Meredith to mix and match like a man shopping for tableware at a Dollar Store.

Sophomore Emma Whitfield, one of only six field players to start each of the team's first 10 games, has been a rare gift for Meredith, holding down her spot at forward and giving the coach at least one position he doesn't have to worry about. The team's top playmaker this season, Whitfield has scored or assisted on five of the team's 12 goals.

But for all that, it's easy to overlook Whitfield. At 5-foot-4, she's hardly the most imposing figure on the team. She didn't open the season as Yale's most vocal, highly touted or most skilled player (labels that likely went, in one form or another, to Beizer, Howser and senior captain Christina Huang). In fact, standing in a huddle around Meredith during Friday's practice session, Whitfield quickly vanishes from view entirely, overshadowed literally and figuratively by her teammates.

At least until the games begin.

On the field, Whitfield is impossible to miss. She's a blur of constant motion, chasing down balls and pushing the attack with relentless energy. She doesn't always appear to be the fastest player or the strongest player, but she is invariably the first to almost any ball. In the rare moments she comes off the field for a breather, her face is usually set in a scowl of determination and focus. She stands apart from the bench, drinking water and surveying the field with the gaze of a raider probing an opponent's weaknesses and planning her next foray into enemy territory.

All of which makes it so startling to talk to Whitfield after the whistle has blown, her face almost always breaking into a smile that rests on the verge of a laugh. Because even if her definition of having fun skews slightly from the norm, Whitfield has traveled a long way from her home in Bow, Wash., a town midway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, in search of an opportunity to enjoy herself on and off the field.

"At home, I played up to a certain point and it got to a point where it was too serious for me," Whitfield said of her experience in youth soccer. "And I ended up taking a year, not necessarily a year off, but I went back and I played on a team that was less competitive and all my best friends were on it. And as soon as I did that, I found how much I loved it. I think the thing that I liked the most about it was playing with people who loved the game but didn't take it way too seriously."

It seems like a paradox that someone could discover such fire for the game by taking it less seriously, but Whitfield seems to make a habit of reaching places via her own path.

Originally intent on staying close to home for college -- one older sister, Claire, played soccer at Gonzaga and another, Jacqueline, ran cross country at Seattle Pacific -- Whitfield began to consider other options after Claire moved to Baltimore and Jacqueline moved to New York after college. Her subsequent plan centered on Harvard, but she decided to visit Yale after Hayley Zevenbergen, a teammate in club soccer in Washington, told her she was going to play at Yale.

"I actually only met two people [Susie Starr and Jessica Berggren] on my visit, but I absolutely fell in love with them as soon as I got here," Whitfield said. "So I was sold as soon as I got here."

Of course, she first had to overcome her aversion to taking things too seriously.

"And I met Tina [Huang] briefly, for about a minute in the library," Whitfield recalled. "And it was the middle of reading period and everybody was packed in libraries, and I was like, 'This school sucks. Everybody studies, nobody does anything.' But those three girls sold me on the school."

With Whitfield, Zevenbergen and Mary Kuder all originally from Washington, Yale has something of a pipeline to the Pacific Northwest. But aside from a Starbucks on every corner, there is some culture shock involved in relocating to a region where everyone appears to be in a perpetual hurry to go nowhere in particular.

"I think the West Coast is a lot more laid back than the East Coast is, which was kind of like a culture shock for me, I guess, when I got out here," Whitfield said with a laugh. "But I think, when I went to Harvard, I found that people were a little more serious about things, and Yale I feel like is a little more laid back, compared to everything else over here."

In other words, people at Yale will at least look back after they run over you. But adjusting to the East Coast was nothing compared to adjusting to the school's academic load.

"You get used to it," Whitfield said. "I think once you get put in the swing of everything, and you realize that you actually have to do a lot more studying, you do it. But when you first come here, it's such a shock that, I don't know, it takes a bit of time to get used to."

Although still undecided on a major, Whitfield said she's leaning toward history or American studies. And although it came with an embarrassed grin, she admitted she enjoyed a few of her classes.

"There was one [class] that I actually really liked, it was political philosophy, as weird as that sounds," Whitfield said. "But I really enjoyed it. And then I had some that were just … like I had to get a tutor for one of my science classes. It's a different step from being at home, where everything is a lot easier."

After all of that, the adjustment period on the field last season was a breeze. Meredith warned Whitfield that she was entering a crowded field of forwards, but the freshman ended the season with a team-high 50 shots and tied for the team lead with eight goals. And with Howser and Huang either out or at less than 100 percent for much of this season, Whitfield has teamed with Macauley and sophomore Maggie Westfal to keep the offense above water.

On Saturday in Boston, she got a reward that probably felt even better than the win that move Yale to 2-0 in the conference. Scattered across the country and even the globe -- Whitfield's parents are both from England, although you wouldn't know it from her accent -- family and friends gathered in Cambridge to watch the youngest daughter play.

"It's amazing, it's so nice," Whitfield said of the brief reunion. "My two sisters, their shrill little voices carry across the entire field, so I don't hear anybody else but them. So it's awesome when I hear them. … It's kind of nice, actually, because our family never gets to see each other. So my games, our games, are just a time when everybody gets together and it's so nice."

Standing in a small huddle of family gathered by the fence on the far side of the field after the win, Whitfield again seemed content to disappear into her surroundings. Quiet but charmingly amiable off the field, fierce but bent on fun on the field and studious but possessing perspective in the classroom, Whitfield is a collection of contrasts.

By putting fun first, she ended up playing soccer at one of the country's top schools. And that outlook on life isn't likely to change anytime soon.

"I really enjoy it out here," Whitfield said Friday, the kind of fall day that drives New England's tourism industry. "My sisters have liked it, like after graduating from college. So I might follow in their paths and stay out here for two years after and do something. But ultimately, in the end, I want to end up somewhere on the West Coast again.

"I miss the drizzle, the constant drizzle of Washington. … I like the overcast!"

After all, what's a little rain, as long as you don't take it too seriously?

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.