Every athlete dreams of playing at the highest level possible in their sport. It’s what drives them to spend years practising their craft.
The cruel reality, however, is that only a handful of athletes ever realize their dreams.
Sarah Noonan is one of those lucky ones.
The 23-year-old Fort Frances native recently signed a contract—pending league approval—to play with the London Gryphons of the United Soccer Leagues’ W-League.
The W-League is the highest level of women’s soccer in North America. While none of the players are paid to play, the 38-team league boasts some of the sport’s top players.
Team rosters are peppered with national team members, top players from the U.S. college ranks, as well as those from overseas.
The prospect of competing against such an impressive collection of athletes is something Noonan initially had a hard time believing.
“I really couldn’t even believe that I made the team,” she said. “It blew me away . . . it was pretty exciting.”
It often is said the difference between a great athlete and one who makes it to the top of their sport is mental toughness. And Noonan is no exception. Her story is as much about the tenacity she displayed in chasing her dream as it is about her ability on the pitch.
Take, for instance, her tryout with the Gryphons. It was Noonan—having completed a very successful soccer career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth—who contacted Gryphons’ general manager Aldo Caranci to inquire about a possible tryout.
Listening intently as Noonan listed her experience and achievements playing forward at UMD, Caranci decided to further investigate the potential prospect.
He contacted UMD soccer coach Greg Cane, for whom Noonan had played the past four years. Impressed with what he heard, Caranci then offered Noonan a tryout.
“After I spoke with her coach [at UMD], I was interested in seeing her only because the bad things I heard were minor and all the good things superseded all the other stuff,” Caranci remarked.
It would have been understandable had Noonan been nervous heading into what was undeniably the biggest opportunity of her soccer career. At stake was a shot at realizing a dream.
But like all great athletes, Noonan was quietly confident in her talent—even if she was unsure what to expect at the tryout.
“I felt pretty good by my own standard, but I had no idea how I was going to compare to the other girls,” Noonan said of how she felt leading up to the tryout.
“I was kind of in the dark that way.”
But it didn’t take very long for Noonan to feel comfortable once the tryout began. She was familiar with many of the training techniques and drills used by the Gryphons as they were the same as those used at UMD.
Feeling comfortable, Noonan’s confidence grew as the tryout progressed.
“When we started the ball work and the actual practice, I felt like I was right there with them [the other players] so that gave me confidence and I played really well,” she said.
“I gave it my all,” she added. “There were three girls that were on the team last year that were there and I felt like I was right there with them.”
Watching from the sidelines, Caranci said he was impressed by Noonan’s skill set on the pitch, particularly her speed, but it was the manner in which she carried herself, and interacted with the coaches and other players, that really caught his eye.
“What really impressed me was that she got involved,” he remarked. “She’s a very good people person. She introduced herself and got right in with the players.
“We’ve taken a couple of years to build that synergy with the group and that’s the important thing,” Caranci added. “We’ve actually cut girls that have good skill but you know are going to rock the boat.”
It took Caranci just one practice to make a decision concerning Noonan. Following the training session, he approached Noonan and offered her a contract.
“I was pumped,” she enthused. “I was so excited. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I shook the coach’s hand and we arranged to meet to do all the paperwork.”
The one-year contract signed and awaiting league approval (a mere formality, according to Caranci), Noonan has shifted her attention to the upcoming season.
“I just want to get some good playing time and to compete at the level of the rest of these girls,” she said. “I’m just so excited to be at that level with them.
“I just hope I get to see the field and not make a fool of myself,” she laughed.
While Noonan may have modest expectations for the season, Caranci and the Gryphons’ coaching staff believe she’ll make an immediate impact on the pitch.
“Do we expect her to score 200 goals? Never,” Caranci said. “Do we expect her to contribute to the team? Absolutely. Will she? Absolutely.
“We know she will. We could tell that from day one when we saw her,” he stressed.
The Gryphons play their first exhibition game May 12 against the Hamilton Avalanche, then begin their quest for a playoff berth May 27 in Minnesota against the Lightning.