Graduating to the pros

On the final Friday of winter break, College of William and Mary senior forward Claire Zimmeck sat glued to her computer monitor, anxiously hitting the refresh button while watching a steady succession of names scroll across the screen in front of her.

The date was Jan. 16, and the three-time All-American was hoping for her own name to appear among the 70 slots in the inaugural draft of the newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer league.

For Zimmeck, the day represented the climactic moment of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I was just waiting, basically everything was on the line,” Zimmeck said. “I was going to apply to grad school if it didn’t work out, so I was just waiting until Jan. 16 to see what would happen.”

For hours, the Fairfax native intensely surveyed the selections, each passing pick inching her farther from the realization of a professional soccer career. Finally, with eight slots remaining, she saw what she had been waiting for — Zimmeck had been drafted by her hometown team the Washington Freedom.

“I had no idea [if I was going to be drafted]. It took a long time, and I was really nervous,” she said. “Right afterwards, one of the assistant coaches called me. I was pretty excited.”

The selection capped a remarkable collegiate career for the three-time All-American. During her four years at the College, Zimmeck racked up nearly every conceivable honor, leading her squad to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and finishing third all-time in career goals.

Until early December, Zimmeck was enjoying the remainder of her senior year, preparing to graduate in the spring and worrying about being accepted to graduate school.

“I didn’t know [I had a chance at playing professionally] until I got an invite for the combine,” she said. “Everyone who was going into the combine had no idea whether they would get drafted or not, but the opportunity came and I just tried as hard as I could.”

Held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the draft combine gave WPS coaches and scouts an advance look at players under consideration, with the event drawing many of the best amateur and professional players in the country. There, Zimmeck mixed with 71 other athletes all aiming for a coveted draft slot, while 72 additional players competed at an identical event in California.

“It was nice because I had a good group of girls, and we bonded really quickly,” Zimmeck said. “They split us up into four teams. We were the only team that won games, and I made some good friends so it was a good experience.”

Emerging from that event, Zimmeck felt confident in her performance. But faced with the long odds of ending up on a WPS roster, she was far from certain of her chances.

“I still had no clue,” she said. “All the WPS coaches were there, but [the players] were all in the dark.”

All that changed when Washington Freedom Head Coach Jim Gabarra selected her with the final pick in the ninth round of the league’s draft. With the selection in her back pocket, graduate school was suddenly out of the picture.

Now, instead of grinding through essays and biology homework, Zimmeck is training locally five days a week in anticipation of the March 1 start of the Freedom’s preseason.

“I usually have three months to prepare for the fall [college] season and only one month for this,” Zimmeck said. “You have to be in shape for any team you go on, and I try to be in the best shape I can. For this, there’s more on the line.”

The stakes will be high. In less than a month, the agile forward, who had little trouble zigzagging through CAA defenders, will instead be taking the field with such legendary players as U.S. National Team standouts Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill. In daily practice, Zimmeck will have to find a way to fire shots past goalkeeper Briana Scurry — a two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion.

“She’ll be a little intimidating. She’s got a lot of experience, and, [after] seeing her play against China in the World Cup, she’s a great player,” Zimmeck said. “All the players have a great level of experience and they play at a high level. I’m going to be honored to play with them and excited to learn.”

The competition will certainly not be easy, but for now, Zimmeck is excited to be playing a short distance from her home and prepared to begin working toward earning a spot in the Freedom lineup.

“I have to go in and prove myself,” she said. “Everything is up in the air, so we’ll see what happens.”


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