When Rhian Wilkinson headed south of the border this fall, it wasn’t to put on her cleats. Instead, she picked up some hardware and was named to the 2013 Hall of Fame Class at the University of Tennessee.
The accolade is a perfect way to remember her college career, which almost didn’t come to fruition, because joining an NCAA program wasn’t necessarily at the top of her list as a teenager.
“I never thought I would go play in the United States,” she admits. “Both of my parents were teachers in Quebec and I was expecting to stay there. I ended up getting a few scholarship offers at 17, which is quite late.”
She says she changed her mind once she met the Tennessee coaching staff and athletic director. They expressed a desire to move the Lady Vols soccer program up the NCAA rankings and said she would play a key role in the team’s future.
They were right; it was a perfect fit. The Vols went on to make three NCAA Tournament appearances and capture a pair of SEC Eastern Division and Tournament titles. Even a decade after her graduation, Wilkinson continues to lead in a handful of statistical categories. She remains first in single-season assists (15), first in career assists (32), second in career points (88) and third in career goals (28), making her one of the best offensive players to ever suit up for Tennessee.
“It’s definitely an honour to see your name,” she says. “I’m very proud of my assists stat because I’ve always prided myself on being able to create goals.”
Although the 31-year-old is best known as a fullback, she actually grew up playing forward. She adapted to a backline role at the request of then-national team head coach, Even Pellerud.
“I wouldn’t say I immediately fell in love with the defensive position,” Wilkinson admits. “But, teams appreciate learning a new position and I really enjoy fullback now. In Tennessee, I was very lucky to have a very good first year and to be an important member of the team. It was nice to be relied upon for scoring.”
One of the reasons for her success on the scoresheet was because of her speed, as Wilkinson jokingly says “it certainly wasn’t because of my technique”.
When asked about the toughest competition she ever faced in college, her answer is no surprise: Abby Wambach. “I remember her dragging me down the entire field,” she recalls with a laugh. “She was a strong girl even then.”
Although much of the current Canadian roster is made up of former NCAA players, Wilkinson believes times are changing. She identifies midfielders Desiree Scott and Kaylyn Kyle as two Canadian Interuniversity Sport success stories. She advises players looking to join a NCAA or CIS program to be aggressive.
“Do your due diligence,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you go. Just make sure you’re going to a program that’s right for you. Be confident and be assertive. If there are schools you want to go to, approach them. Go after something if you really want it.”
2013 marks Wilkinson’s 10-year anniversary as a member of the Canadian squad. She was 20 when she made her debut for the red and white and has been a key contributor ever since. She’s played in 143 games, scored seven goals and won an Olympic medal, but it’s important to note her tremendous leadership, experience and focus on teamwork continue to make her a very important player as Canada works toward the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
She’s a true role model for soccer players at any level and has a decade of hard work to prove it.