SouthLake star lacks size but excels because she has lots of heart
by Chris Hunt
Emily Lipinski could take the easy way out.
At 4 feet, 10 inches tall, no one would think twice if the freshman soccer player didn’t go after the ball. After all, her opponents often are six inches to a foot taller. If she just contained the play, forcing her opponents to pass with some token pressure, no one would blink. Then, she wouldn’t risk colliding into her much larger opponents, or worse, embarrassing herself when she didn’t make the play.
But taking the easy way just isn’t Lipinski’s style.
For three seasons now, Lipinski has been a relentless pursuer of the ball for the SouthLake Christian Eagles. Since making the varsity squad as a seventh-grader, the diminutive forward has thrown caution to the wind, attacking much larger players, often with four to five more years of experience on the pitch – and in life, for that matter.
Not once has Lipinski backed off, making the excuse that she was too short, too slightly built or too young. Since the day SouthLake coach Mark Apgar inserted her into the starting lineup, she’s commanded respect from her much-larger peers and opposing coaches, earning all-conference honors the last three seasons. Lipinski’s tenacity has been a natural fit in Apgar’s aggressive attack, which requires the two forwards to apply intense pressure in search of turnovers and easy transition scores.
“Relentless is a great word used to describe her,” said Apgar. “She hounds people with the ball. She’s not the biggest on the field, but she plays well above her size.”
While many people shorter than 5 feet would be intimidated to play high school soccer, Lipinski has turned her height into an asset. Staying low to the ground, she slices through defenses, making cuts toward open space that longer legs struggle to follow. And when a ball is up for grabs, her quick feet and low center of gravity make it easier to win the possession. Lipinski just powers right past her opponent and is gone before anyone notices.
“Being short is a gift because I’m quicker than everyone,” said Lipinski. “I’m really competitive so I don’t think about height; I think about getting the ball. I like going out there and playing like I’m 5-8.”
The foundation of Lipinski’s cat-like agility can be traced back to her ballet days in elementary school. She’s even played basketball for a number of years, last season playing guard on SouthLake’s varsity squad, which might explain her fancy footwork. But in the end, those sports couldn’t compare to soccer for Lipinski. The fast pace and team concepts, she said, are the reasons she spends most her free time playing soccer.
Her ability to excel on the field was a factor, too.
This spring, Lipinski has made the most of her opportunities with 15 goals entering the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A playoffs on Friday, May 13. She’s been an effective scorer since her first season with the Eagles, when she knocked in 17 goals. Apgar said Lipinski has already scored 58 goals in her career, well within striking distance of the school record of 84, set by Autumn Provenzano in 2006. Barring a catastrophic injury, Lipinski should surpass that mark during her junior year.
“Her drive to be the best is almost her greatest fault,” said Apgar. “She gets mad at herself because she expects to always do her best.”
SouthLake Chrisitian is a small private school on Highway 73, just inside Huntersville’s west border with the town of Denver. Fewer than 300 high school students attend SouthLake, which means Apgar doesn’t have enough players to field a junior varsity squad. He’s often forced to use middle-school players to fill his varsity team, which Lipinski took full advantage of back in 2009.
“Good teams normally have a lot of good players who keep younger kids on middle-school teams,” said Apgar. “If I had a lot of girls in the program, we probably wouldn’t have seen the things Emily was doing at such a young age.”
It was kind of by accident that Lipinski started playing varsity in seventh grade. That spring, the Eagles expected to return plenty of talent at the forward position. Rising senior Alana Ryczek already had 83 career goals, and then-freshman Bethany Spano – a year away from becoming the Metrolina Athletic Conference’s 2010 Player of the Year – had already proven herself as quite the goal scorer. Spano, a SouthLake soccer prodigy herself, has collected 72 goals nearing the end of her junior campaign.
But before the 2009 season, at the advice of coaches at Belmont-Abbey College, where she plays today, Ryczek decided to join a club soccer team instead of returning to SouthLake’s squad. Suddenly, Apgar had to fill a spot up top in the lineup, opposite Spano. At the time, Lipinski had only played defense at the middle-school level. On a hunch, Apgar moved her to forward, and she immediately caught his interest.
“I coached her in middle school as a sixth-grader,” said Apgar. “I remembered that she was fast and not scared of anything. I put her in and she chased the ball down, took it away from someone and scored a goal in her first varsity practice. I said to myself, ‘We might have something special here.’”
Lipinski never left the starting lineup. With three seasons already under her belt – more than most soccer players can expect to play in a career – Lipinski still has three more seasons ahead of her. That’s also three more opportunities to win a state title, which has eluded the Eagles (15-6-1 in 2011) the last three seasons. They’ve come close, reaching the semifinals on more than one occasion, and this year they have another shot at the title. Apgar expected a top-10 seed entering this weekend’s state tournament. (Seeding wasn’t announced until after The Herald Weekly’s press time).
Lipinski has some personal goals to chase, too.
Including this season, Lipinski now has three all-conference seasons to her credit, giving her the rare opportunity to achieve that feat six times by the time she graduates. Apgar said he’s never heard of a six-time all-conference player. Wouldn’t that be a remarkable feat?
“I’m getting used to penciling her in at right forward,” said Apgar. “Six years will be a long time.”