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How Katie Vanden Avond Became Soccer's Unstoppable Scorer

National scoring leader Katie Vanden Avond this week enters her final regular-season game with 127 career goals for Division III St. Norbert. Graham Hays/espnW

DE PERE, Wis. -- Katie Vanden Avond was one among tens of thousands of Americans who crossed the border to Vancouver, British Columbia, this past summer to watch the World Cup final in person. Which isn't to say she was just like all her countrywomen and countrymen.

For one thing, she scored more NCAA goals than anyone present that day. That includes those who were on the medal podium.

File that one away the next time you need to stump someone in trivia.

Vanden Avond, her mom and a small traveling party previously made the drive from their home in the Green Bay area to Winnipeg for the first two games the United States played in Canada. With the tournament unlikely to return to North America until 2027 at the soonest, that 12-hour trek with a pop-up camper seemed a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for a mother who still plays in an indoor league and a daughter who plays for St. Norbert College. But when the United States subsequently beat Germany in a semifinal, a friend and former teammate cajoled Vanden Avond into making a trip to Vancouver that she couldn't afford but also couldn't resist.

So as more than 50,000 people congregated in the streets around BC Place before the United States played Japan, she soaked in an atmosphere unlike almost anything seen before for women's sports, certainly since the 1999 World Cup that she was barely old enough to recall. She watched and cheered from the stands as Carli Lloyd played the game of her life, Abby Wambach capped a career and rising stars like Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston, not much older than her, celebrated.

Vanden Avond this week enters her final regular-season game with 127 career goals for Division III St. Norbert. That's more than Lloyd scored as a multiple-time All-American at Rutgers, more than Wambach scored in leading Florida to a national championship and more than Brian scored for Virginia in twice winning the Hermann Trophy. It's more than almost anyone scored. Her 125th goal broke the NCAA Division III record, and in more than 30 years of NCAA soccer, only one person in any division scored more.

She almost didn't get to play college soccer. She almost didn't get a chance to play her final season. Yet each time circumstances dared her to quit, she answered with more goals.

That she didn't score them in front of tens of thousands on an international stage, or even thousands on a Division I stage, diminishes only the attendance, not the accomplishment.

"There's really nothing like being a part of our team," Vanden Avond said. "Being an athlete on the St. Norbert campus is the greatest feeling of community I think you could ever have. It's more than just playing soccer; it's being a part of the school. I don't think that feeling can be replaced. Getting back to that was worth it, even through all the pain."

Vanden Avond was a goal scorer in high school, too, but she tore her ACL playing indoor soccer and lost her junior season, perhaps a prep player's most important in the recruiting process. By her senior spring, when she returned to the field, it was almost too late to catch the eye of any college programs, and she didn't play well enough to change that. Out of one thousand NCAA programs across all divisions, the only one that wanted her to play soccer was hometown St. Norbert.

It took her barely six minutes to score in the first game of her freshman season. It took her less than a half the game to finish a hat trick. She added a fourth before it was over. She scored 28 goals that first season, then 26 more as a sophomore. To put those first two seasons in context, there were only 15 active players across all three NCAA divisions with as many as 54 career goals when this week began. She scored that many in her first 38 games. She was just getting started.

She scored 37 goals as a junior, tied for the 11th-best single-season total in NCAA history, and led St. Norbert to its first NCAA tournament appearance. Her goal in the ninth minute of a first-round tournament game against No. 1 overall seed Washington University even gave her team the lead, but there are limits to magic in this world. St. Norbert lost 5-2.

Still, Vanden Avond would begin her senior season 34 goals shy of breaking the Division III record set a decade earlier by former Luther College standout Katie Pettigrew. Reaching that mark wouldn't be easy -- Missy Gregg, the all-time leading scorer for all divisions, was the only player to record more than one season of at least 35 goals. But with luck and good health, Pettigrew's record was within reach.

Then Vanden Avond's legs started to hurt. The pain wasn't debilitating at first, but it lingered and worsened through a preseason scrimmage and the alumni game a year ago. An MRI detected a stress fracture in one leg. An additional stress fracture in the other leg was diagnosed soon thereafter.

Once more a season was over before it started. Rather than pursue the record, she was left to maneuver around campus for weeks on crutches or in a wheelchair so as not to put weight on her legs.

Athletes in Division III have the equivalent of five academic years in which to complete four seasons of athletic eligibility, but using a fifth year can be financially impractical at schools that do not offer athletic scholarships. In Vanden Avond's case, previous fiscal pragmatism saved her that head-versus-heart decision. As a sophomore, she took the spring semester off for a paid internship at an area company and worked in the Green Bay Packers pro shop. As a result, this fall was always to be the eighth and final semester before graduation for someone who in addition to her soccer exploits is an academic All-American.

That still left the question of whether it was worth the mental and physical effort, not to mention the expense and the time, to try and come back for potentially as few as 18 games.

"Do you really want to do this?" Keith Vanden Avond recalled asking his daughter. "You have the school records, you have the conference records. Why don't we just move on?"

The answer was because she wasn't done.

The most well-known trainer in women's soccer at the moment is undoubtedly James Galanis, the person Lloyd credits for much of her career success, but the trainer most responsible for the Division III record changing hands is Bryan Schwebke. It was under his direction that Vanden Avond worked her way back and redeveloped the muscles that went unused while the bones in her legs healed. Much to her chagrin, that included scraping, a technique sometimes dryly referenced as a therapeutic form of torture in which a stainless steel implement is forcibly pushed over muscles in a manner those on the receiving end might compare to a steamroller leveling asphalt. She would leave those sessions with both legs purple. In other words, it was less than entirely comfortable.

"I went to sessions with her, and she was in tears as he was doing this," her mom Lisa recalled. "It was tough to watch her go through [the entire rehab process] because I don't think a lot of people realize how much work it was."

Surgery to remove her appendix in the spring proved one more obstacle, but she was on the field for the opener. In her second game, she scored four goals. She enters the weekend four goals shy of the eighth 40-goal season in NCAA history and the first since 2002.

They don't charge admission for soccer games at St. Norbert, which means that unlike the World Cup, it's difficult to come up with a precise count at home games. There were more people in the stands than usual on senior day this past weekend, thanks to an influx of friends and family and a busload of visiting fans. Those who decide such things settled on 300 for the official bookkeeping. That was a hundred more than the estimate for a midweek game not long before against Lawrence University. In that encounter, Vanden Avond channeled Lloyd and scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes. Then she scored a fourth in the first half.

The town, let alone the nation, didn't stop to watch the day she tied the Division III record. Indeed, hours after the college president retired her jersey in a postgame ceremony, she found herself home alone. Her coach, parents, brother and best friend left because, well, they had Packers tickets. She would have gone, too, but after back-to-back games, she was too tired and too bruised.

Hers is not a larger-than-life legend. It is very much life sized. And that is precisely what is special about it. So the greatest goal scorer Division III has ever known stretched out in the empty house and watched the Packers.