Soccer star Irene Calabria learned to play with the boys

Written by: Stephen Harrison

On a balmy fall day outside of the Mercer County Community College athletics building, Mercer women’s soccer team standout sophomore defender Irene Calabria sits down for an interview. Just having completed one of her rigorous offseason workouts, she is breathing heavily but doesn’t appear sapped of energy. Friendly and quick to laugh, several of her arriving teammates exchange hugs with her during the interview. She begins to describe her journey as an athlete, of which the most recent stop has been Mercer County Community College.

Calabria got her first soccer ball when she was only three, and in that moment a love for the sport of soccer was born. Born in Spain and growing up in the city of Madrid, she encountered a cultural barrier at a very young age.

“When I was in school, it was soccer just for guys… my mom had to go and say to the professors my girl wants to play soccer, so let her play because, you know, she can play” she says while laughing at the memory.

Calabria played with the boys until the age of 14 when it was first possible to play on an all girls team. “The girls, they weren’t so good” she says with a laugh. This persuaded her to take some time off from soccer and she didn’t play again until she was in a university.

After graduating from the university with a bachelor’s degree she decided that she wanted to pursue opportunities in America. In August of 2010 Calabria left family and friends and traveled to New Jersey. “It was difficult because of the language” she says, having never spoken English outside of a school setting.

Three semesters later Calabria has adapted to her new environment, earning the praise of her coach Michelle Ogborn-Heywood.

“From the door she’s energetic” says coach Ogborn-Heywood. “She’s one of the best female defenders I’ve seen in a long time” she says, adding “she’s the whole package of what you’re look for in a female athlete.”

Playing the position of left defender, Calabria earned second team all conference honors in her first year, and this past semester she was voted to the first team all conference as well as the Garden State Athletic Conference First Team. This past season she was also named a co-captain of the team.

Calabria deploys a combination of hard work, leadership through example and competitive spirit.

“She’s in the gym every single day, sometimes more than once a day” says Michelle Ogborn-Heywood, and women’s team goalkeeper Jessica Larsen describes her leadership saying she is “on the field and always talking and supporting everyone.”

Despite a groin injury early this past season, Calabria played through the pain and still provided support on the field.

“Without a doubt a couple of games we won would have been lost without her” says coach Ogborn-Heywood, “she was a major factor in all of our wins.”

When things looked bleak after the women’s team got off to a seven loss and one tie start this past season, Calabria’s competitiveness wouldn’t quit.

“When we were losing she just kept giving and giving” says coach Ogborn-Heywood. Eventually the team would turn their season around, finishing with seven wins and twelve losses and making it all the way to the semifinal game in the regional conference tournament.

Not just an effective defender, team-mate Jessica Larsen recalls what she believes is Calabria’s best moment from the past season. As Vikings goalkeeper Larsen looked on from her position in the net as Irene took the ball from her left defenders position and headed up the field. She weaved the ball down the field and took aim from around midfield and soared a shot over the head of the opposing goalkeeper and into the net for a score. “It was the most amazing shot I’ve ever seen in my life” says Larsen.

While her position as defender occasionally affords her opportunities to score goals, Calabria’s real mission is to make it more difficult for an opposing player to get the ball past teammate and goalkeeper Jessica Larsen. “She saves me constantly and I love her for it” says Larsen.

Calabria plans to graduate mercer with a physical therapist assistant degree, and hopes to transfer to a four year college, preferably one that allows her to continue playing soccer.

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