By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Whenever Oakcrest soccer player Haleigh Whitcraft was feeling too drained after practice or a big game to sit down and do her homework, or study for a big test, her mom was right there with her — both figuratively and literally.
Back in 2006, Whitcraft’s mom, Kelly Gatto, lost her father to pancreatic cancer. Whitcraft said all those visits to doctor’s appointments inspired her mom to become a nurse, so Gatto dove into the books along with her daughter in order to earn a degree in the hopes of bettering her life. Whitcraft said her mother’s dedication to her education has been a big reason why Whitcraft is a 4.0 student and near the top of her senior class.
“My mom just graduated nursing school as she goes through a career change. Seeing her study every night gives me motivation. She got the high honor roll and is on the dean’s list. That motivates me the most, seeing her work hard to get to where she wants to be,” Whitcraft said. “She’s a huge part of my life. She was a real estate agent and her father passed away in 2006 from pancreatic cancer, and she was the one who helped him through everything, bringing him to doctor’s offices and all that. A couple years ago, after going through all that, she thought, ‘why don’t I try nursing?’ So, she went to nursing school and it’s obviously worked out for her. Seeing her go through that is so motivational to me, and it helps me. I’m very determined to get to college and do what I want to do because of her.”
Whitcraft said she’s undecided on her college choice, but that she would like to study athletic training or physical therapy. Earning a degree in that field certainly will take a lot of dedication, but that’s something Whitcraft is used to. She began playing soccer at age 7 and continued to work hard at her skills so that she could be an impact player at the high school level. She certainly has been, earning a starting spot as a freshman and blossoming into perhaps the most underrated central defender in the Cape-Atlantic League.
“Going in, I kind of knew I would be starting because the center back who was graduating, I was told I played very similar to her. And just knowing all the girls on the team, I had a feeling I was going to be on varsity. Of course, I was nervous, because most people don’t expect to make varsity as a freshman. But I just went in playing my game and trying to do my best. I’ve been playing defense most of my life, so I had some confidence. Throughout my freshman season I got more comfortable and getting to know the girls helped me,” she said. “I was a lot more confident as a sophomore. Throughout the season you get to bond with your team, and just seeing each other in school you get to know the girls more, practicing with them every day, you just create a strong bond and that comes through on the field.”
The Falcons certainly bonded, and this year put together maybe their best season ever. They won a school-record 15 games and advanced all the way to the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals before a 2-1 loss to top-seeded Haddonfield. That playoff run included a 4-0 win over Sterling in the first round and a thrilling PK shootout win over Pt. Boro in the quarterfinals. And getting there wasn’t easy, as the Falcons had to shuffle their lineup around while dealing with some injuries.
“It was definitely a very successful season. It was a team effort. We had some freshmen step up and some other players who also stepped up. We had preseason injuries to two of our key players, so we needed other players to move into their positions, and we needed to adjust to that. We knew we had to step up and fight hard together, and that’s exactly what we did. It was a great feeling after each win. I wasn’t expecting that great of a season — I don’t think anybody does — but after each win we gained more hope and believed we could go further and further. I’m very proud of everyone,” Whitcraft said. “We had one of our offensive players, Alexa Dimino, move back to defense and I know that was a huge transition for her because she had never played defense before, so there was a lot of pressure on me playing with three new players on defense. But, once we started rolling, I knew we were going to be a strong unit.”
And, through the grind of a 21-game season, Whitcraft somehow manages to maintain a spotless academic record.
“It’s definitely hard during the soccer season because it takes a toll on your body. You’re sore and tired from all the games and practices and sometimes you have to miss classes for early away games,” she said. “But I love to learn new things and I strive to get straight A’s and keep my GPA up. Whenever I miss a class, I ask right away what I missed, and sometimes you’re up all night studying and trying to get homework done. I work hard knowing I need to keep my grades high to get into a good college.”
Whitcraft said she’ll have a lot of memories to take with her, wherever she decides to attend college. But one game — that victory over Pt. Boro in which she was one of three Falcons players to make her PK — will stand out in her mind for years to come.
“I wasn’t really expecting this great of a season, so looking back on it, I’m really happy with everything, looking back on our wins,” Whitcraft said. “Especially our second-round playoff win. That was an amazing game, a penalty shootout win (over Pt. Boro). Being down 1-0, then coming back and tying the game with 10 minutes left and winning in PKs. It was just an amazing game and I’m proud of everybody for working so hard. We even had some JV players step up. I saw some pictures of our reaction after the win, and that’s something that makes me smile.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays