At the end of the spring 2021 soccer season, graduate student Zoë Steck assumed her soccer career at the University of Connecticut (UConn) would come to an end.
Steck would’ve had nothing to be ashamed of as she compiled a solid career at UConn, playing in over 44 games in her four years. However, like many others during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, unexpected opportunities presented themselves.
With the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) granting all athletes an extra year of eligibility, Steck instantly knew where she would wind up the next season. Playing in her home state of New Jersey alongside the reigning championship soccer team at Montclair State University couldn’t have been better in her eyes.
“It was basically an overarching notion of coming home,” Steck said. “Being away at UConn for four years, I was far away from my family [and] they weren’t able to come to every game. The opportunity to come home and play another year and go to graduate school in an area that I want to be, with a team I want to play with was a no-brainer for me.”
Steck would make an immediate impact, starting in the Red Hawks’ first four games and scoring in two of them. She instantly clicked with the Montclair State squad, who has embraced her since the beginning.
Head coach Patrick Naughter had watched Steck play out of high school before she committed to UConn. He knew Steck was special and would be a crucial asset in this year’s 2021 season.
“I had seen Zoë play a bunch when she was a club and high school player,” Naughter said. “I knew she was a hardworking physical forward who is clean in front of a goal.”
As for how she fit in with the team, Naughter was very straightforward.
“Seamlessly, I feel like she has been here forever,” he said. “Great kid, great teammate.”
In Steck’s senior year at Nutley High School, she led the entire state in goals scored with 41. She broke many records at the school, including being the only soccer player to break the 100-goal mark. She completed her four years reaching 107 goals.
Both her skill as a player and teammate flourished in high school as she was a two-time captain.
One of her teammates and longtime best friend at Nutley High School was senior Samantha Gabriele. The two kept in touch when they went their separate ways in college.
“Being that Zoë was one of my best friends when we were in high school together, hearing that she was coming to Montclair [State] was super exciting,” Gabriele said at the beginning of preseason training. “We always had great chemistry on the field so I am interested to see how that translates on the college level.”
Coming from a Division I school, Steck mentions how the women’s soccer team at Montclair State is run just as well as many Division I schools in the nation. From the team practices to the overall culture of the team, she feels as if there isn’t much of a drop-off between the two divisions.
“If you were to throw me into the program with no names on the shirt, not telling me where I am or who I’m with, I would no doubt think that Montclair State would be a successful [Division I] program,” Steck said.
The opportunity presented by the NCAA to play another year presents a unique situation for graduate students. Steck understands she is going to a new school, and only for a year, so it was important to find a perfect match — which she thinks she has with Montclair State.
“Coming somewhere for my last year I was just looking for somewhere that would willingly take me in, like open arms, knowing I was only going to be here for a short period of time,” Steck said. “Going somewhere I knew I could make a difference, share what I know, share what I can do and really just create something special in the short period of time. Everything I heard from the group of people I spoke with said you don’t have to be here long to feel like you’re a part of their family.”
Steck understands the women’s soccer program at Montclair State has a winning culture. She has made a few personal goals this season as well.
“Obviously coming here you always have the idea you want to win [the New Jersey Athletic Conference title],” Steck said. “You want to win to perform at a high level and a lot of the girls were saying they want to go back to back. I really want to make a run in the tournament and play in the NCAAs. I never had the opportunity to do that at UConn, so this year, making a tournament run and going out being successful and playing is not a far-fetched idea for us.”
As an undergraduate, Steck was a psychology major and is now studying sports administration for her master’s degree. Continuing to do what she loves and what she has played since kindergarten while pursuing her passion was ideal for the soccer player.
Steck’s work ethic throughout her academic and athletic career has presented her with so many great experiences throughout her life. But her most rewarding opportunity? Being able to return to her home state and play as a Red Hawk.
“Coming home, this is what I know, this is what I love,” Steck said. “This is the ideal way to finish out my career.”