Since she first learned how to kick the ball, Sierra Lelii has been one of the best soccer players on the field.
“I actually grew up playing with boys until I was eight. Since I never played with girls my age, I didn’t realize how much faster I was until my dad put me on a team with 13-year-old girls,” Lelii said.
This natural talent has served her well, carrying her through a record-setting high school career and into her current role as a leader, both on and off the field. As a junior at Seminole High School in Seminole, Florida, Lelii scored an incredible 38 goals, en route to the state championship, and totaled 74 goals by the end of her four years.
In fact, she had already played at Pepin Stadium, the home of the Sunshine State Conference rival Tampa Spartans, twice before even beginning her career as a Shark. The familiarity with the field made it easier for Lelii to play there as a collegiate student-athlete.
“Tampa’s field is different than most fields. Their stadium and bleachers are big and up really high. Some might get intimidated by that,” said Lelii.
As a redshirt-junior last year, Lelii led the team with 10 goals and recorded 23 points, tied for the seventh-highest single-season total in program history, and with fellow 2015 senior Julia Nytorp, became just the third pair of teammates to each record 20 or more points in the same season.
Lelii was also the second player to average at least two points per game, while her 16 career goals rank seventh all-time. After overcoming hip surgery and a broken wrist the past two seasons, Lelii is ready to take this team farther than they’ve ever been before.
I had the chance to sit down with Lelii for a question-and-answer session.
Did the team get together to watch the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) win the Women’s World Cup last month?
“A lot of the team left for the summer and went back home. Five or six of us got together and watched it, though.”
Is your style of play inspired by anyone on the USWNT? Do you want to play like anyone of them?
“Yes, but not in the sense of how I want to play, but rather how driven, hardworking and passionate they are as a team.”
Who is your favorite women’s soccer player of all time?
“Ali Krieger who plays for the USWNT.”
What do you feel was the biggest key to your breakout season last year?
“I had hip surgery before last season. When you go through an injury that could potentially end your sports career, it motivates you to play every second like it’s your last.”
Has it been hard adjusting to your new coach, John Constable?
“No, I don’t think so. I just think it takes time to build a good player-coach relationship when a new coach comes into the program.”
There’s a lot of experience on this team. How important will leadership from the seniors be to your success?
“The younger girls look up to the girls who have been here for three or four years. There are 31 girls on the team. This year, 12 of them are seniors. It’s extremely important for us seniors to lead on and off the field.”
What has been your favorite experience as a Shark so far?
“My favorite experience, I would say, is when we were in a really close game against Florida Southern last year and we ended up winning in overtime.”
What’s your dream future after graduation?
“If I have the chance to play professionally abroad, I would do that in a second, but I really want to pursue strength and conditioning at the collegiate level.”
Do you have any rituals before games?
“I’m so superstitious, it’s actually sickening. I take a 45-minute shower right before we have to go into the locker room. When I get in uniform, I put on my right sock, left sock, right cleat, left cleat, right shin guard and left shin guard. I wear the same sports bra on game days. I don’t wear it for anything else. I also tape my right wrist. My best friend passed away in December and I haven’t taken his wrist band off since, so I tape over it. I’ll never play without it.”
What pumps you up the most before games?
“What pumps me up the most is when the starting line-up walks out to the field and when they say my name and where I’m from. It’s kind of a reminder as to why I play.”
Do you have a ritual after you or a teammate scores?
“When I score, no. I’m weird, and I don’t celebrate my own goals, but if my teammate scores, I’ll most likely be the first one to tackle them.”
Photo printed with permission from M. GALLNER