By Kevin Donahue
COLCHESTER, Vt. - Senior Sarah Donnelly, a Saint Michael's College women's soccer captain, grew up in various corners of the world thanks to her father's military career, but she always found her sport to be a common bond in her new communities. "Being the new girl everywhere you go, soccer was the constant thing where everyone spoke the same language," she said.
Sophomore Adrianna Gomez understands. Also the daughter of a father with a military background, Gomez was born stateside, but numerous moves led to the family settling in Japan, where she took up soccer.
The two teammates have had similar journeys in life thanks in large part to their fathers: Rear Admiral Michael P. "Buzz" Donnelly is commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Korea, while Rufino Gomez served 24 years in the United States Marine Corps and now works in the private sector in Japan.
Their journeys to becoming Purple Knights, however, were quite different.
Donnelly was an all-conference player at Mount Vernon High School in Virginia, and was looking to continue her career in college, but coming north was not in her plans. "Saint Michael's was the furthest (school) north that I applied to." Donnelly had otherwise applied to southern schools but ended up at Saint Michael's after a tryout one winter impressed head coach Wendy Elles. She wasn't worried about moving to a new place because she had done it throughout her life, but what she wasn't expecting was her family to move halfway around the world to Yokosuka, Japan, when she came to Saint Michael's. Donnelly said, simply, "My parents dropped me off for college and moved to Japan."
Unlike Donnelly, Gomez's entire playing career occurred in Japan, where she was named All-Far East three times at Kadena High School. Her play was noticed by Elles, and the two began exchanging emails. When Gomez finally made the long journey to the United States for college visits as a junior in fall 2016, her father was adamant she choose a college in a timely fashion. "My dad wanted me to get the whole college thing out of the way quickly," Gomez said. "He said that he was making one trip to America, and (we) are going to 30 colleges. It was quite the week, I'll tell you that."
Elles made sure to take advantage of the military connection Gomez and Donnelly shared during the official visit. "Coach is pretty smart," Gomez said. "She made me (Sarah's) recruit on purpose." Gomez went on to say, "I would go to the other schools and nobody got it. We kind of hit it off because she understood what it's like for your parents to be 7,000 miles away."
The support for Gomez came from the top down. Elles noted the long journey that Gomez had to go through just to see the program. "I remember she flew for an absurd amount of hours, barely slept, then tried to observe our early-morning lift," Elles said. "The players made her a makeshift bed out of mats and winter jackets." The pairing of her with Donnelly and the team's commitment to making Gomez comfortable on her visit made her decision to become a Purple Knight an easy one.
A year and a half later, Gomez crossed paths with a Donnelly once again, competing as a senior for Kadena High against Sarah's younger sister, Maggie, in a tournament at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. Half a world away, the Saint Michael's connection was reinforced for a young woman who has globetrotted since an early age, most recently landing in Okinawa, Japan.
"I was born in Virginia but I only lived there for six weeks," Gomez said. "Then we moved to Italy for four years, then we moved to Japan for four years. Then we went back to Virginia for a year, then we moved to Florida for three years. Then it was Japan, which is where we've stayed since I was in sixth grade."
Donnelly had a similar experience during her whirlwind upbringing. "I was born in Virginia Beach, Va., then we moved to Belgium, then we moved to California, then we moved to Northern Virginia," Donnelly said. Her family moved to Yokosuka, Japan, after Sarah went to college, and they didn't stop there, moving to Busan, South Korea, this past summer.
With family so far away, Donnelly and Gomez agree that the team has become their second family. "They are always there for us," Gomez said.
Donnelly agreed. "Yeah, we are very dependent on them, and that's how it should be when you are on a team." It's hard when they see teammates' parents at the games and tailgates afterwards, they said, but the parents have made sure to make them feel welcome. "My first year (after a game), I remember so many moms came up to me, making sure I was eating and checking in on me," Gomez said. "They all sort of took me in. You're not lonely on this team."
Donnelly has also felt that support in her four years as a Purple Knight. While her parents had yet to see her play in college prior to this fall, "they came up in October, and the senior class moved our Senior Day so that I would be able to walk out with them. It's things like that that I appreciate. This team is so much more than a soccer team."
The family on the field has been wonderful for both of them, however, the community around the team has also kept them strong. From the faculty and staff to the professors, Donnelly and Gomez had nothing but good things to say. "I was feeling homesick my first semester, and my Spanish teacher, in particular, helped me out by talking with me, and it really helped," Gomez said. "The faculty just seem very caring here."
Donnelly has had a similar experience with College employees. "I will sometimes have to leave for a break early because the military set up my flight," Donnelly said. "My professors have been super accommodating in those situations." Beyond the classroom, additional people on campus have kept a smile on their faces. "Even Rosemary, she works in the cafeteria, she is constantly asking how my parents are and is so supportive," Gomez said.
During their time at Saint Michael's, Donnelly and Gomez have focused on the important things, achieving both on the field and off. They have both made the Northeast-10 Conference Academic Honor Roll each semester they've been at Saint Michael's, necessitating a 3.0 term GPA. They also have strong relationships with their teammates because of their work ethic and communication skills, and agreed that they picked up these skills from growing up in foreign cultures and military households.
"Playing on my Japanese team, they were really into sempai," Gomez said, "which was pretty much the seniors would teach us a lot about taking care of everything. So making sure all the balls are pumped, the water bottles are ready to go, checking in on your teammates. I definitely learned a lot about discipline, which I do hope to continue and carry it on to our team." Donnelly added, "The Japanese culture is all about respect."
If anyone knows the impact they have had on the team, it's Elles. "Both Adri and Sarah are great representatives of the type of player we are looking to add to our program," Elles said. "They are both dedicated to their studies, work hard in improving every day, and have a good perspective on life." What Donnelly and Gomez have brought to the team and the Saint Michael's community are the values that they have learned through a life of travel and determination.
"We are blessed to have been in a lot of very diverse places," said Gomez, "which, through my experience here, not a lot of kids have. So it's been cool to teach other people to keep an open mind."