“I feel like I did everything a little after everyone else.”
Though she began playing soccer at the young age of 4, Kelsie Dickerson was a late bloomer. She did not rise to the competitive ranks of club soccer until sixth grade — relatively late for the popular youth sport.
The Poway, Calif., native advanced steadily, playing club and high school soccer in the highly competitive San Diego region. Though her skills and athleticism were considerable, her lack of knowledge about the recruiting process left her off the radar of university coaches.
No collegiate soccer programs recruited her, so she chose to hang up her cleats and call it a career. After getting into Cal, that decision was reinforced. Dickerson knew the school had a nationally renowned women’s soccer program, and she felt that the team’s caliber was far out of her reach.
“I decided to let go of those dreams and stop playing,” Dickerson says. “I don’t think I realized how much I was going to miss it.”
As a freshman at Cal, Dickerson did not play soccer at all.
“My first semester was pretty miserable,” she says. “When I stopped playing soccer, I lost my sense of purpose. I didn’t realize how much it shaped me as a person.”
She returned to the game by joining the Cal club team the following semester and played a few successful seasons. However, pickup games and club practices could not satiate her burning hunger for the sport.
“What people don’t understand is that soccer is like an addiction,” Dickerson says. “And I wanted more. I wanted more time on the field, and I wanted to play every day.”
Dickerson decided there was only one direction to take her passion. She contacted the Cal women’s soccer program and asked for a shot — even though she knew she was asking for a long shot.
To the coaches, she was anonymous — just another student in the sprawling Cal student body. The chances that a student who had not caught any coach’s eye out of high school would have the athleticism — much less the skill — required to play for a perennial powerhouse were extremely slim.
“We’ve had players who have shown interest in joining the team,” says Cal head coach Neil McGuire. “Several have tried from the club team and have not ended up making it.”
The first time the Cal coaches saw Dickerson play, she was on the opposing team. The Bears were playing a spring training game and the short-handed opponents asked Dickerson to play with them. Dickerson seized the opportunity, and it proved to be a golden one.
“Nobody could get past her,” McGuire says. “When you see what you think are your best strikers having trouble beating a player and you have the option of having that player on your team, it is a very easy decision.”
McGuire decided to grant Dickerson a tryout period, inviting her to practice with the team through the spring. Despite this promising initial feedback, Dickerson’s ultimate goal remained out of reach.
“It was definitely a tryout period, and they made that clear to me,” Dickerson says. “It didn’t matter … I was just happy to be there, and I was happy to be playing every day. It was awesome.”
Toward the end of the spring, Dickerson was no longer a long shot but a solid prospect. The defender demonstrated a willingness to learn, an eagerness to play and an ability to adapt to the heightened skill level.
One day after practice, McGuire pulled Dickerson aside and told her the coaches liked what they had seen and thought she had a lot of potential. Dickerson’s fate hung on what came next — whether McGuire’s next word was a disheartening “but” or a triumphant “and.”
McGuire offered Dickerson a permanent spot on the team and, in that one moment, made her dreams come true.
“It didn’t feel real,” Dickerson says. “I had this doubt that it would never work out.”
Out of high school, Dickerson had resigned herself to the fact that no collegiate program wanted her for its team. She didn’t even play intramural soccer her first semester, yet by her junior year, she was in uniform as an official California Golden Bear.
She was the girl with the grass-stained glass slipper, but her Cinderella story was far from complete.
When she finally did take the field, it was more than she had ever imagined. Dickerson had held a pragmatic view of her role on the team, and though she was now a bona-fide Bear, she did not expect to contribute much to the veteran squad.
“I never really expected to play, quite frankly,” Dickerson says. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It was really shocking, I guess.”
Dickerson saw the field in a total of five of the Bears’ 22 games last season. Her stretches in the game tended to last merely a few minutes. After the Bears were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, Dickerson spent the offseason dedicating herself to improving her game.
“Sometimes it is hard to continue working hard when you don’t see yourself on the field and you don’t think it is going to happen, but it is all about finding that internal drive that is going to keep you on top of your game,” Dickerson says.
As the whistle blew on the 2013 season opener against UC Irvine, Dickerson was on the field as a starter. She proceeded to play about 20 minutes per game in five of the first six games of the season, already topping her time in the whole of last season.
“Kelsie has shown herself to be a very large part of who we are,” McGuire says. “She truly is a tremendous addition to our team.”
Dickerson may have arrived late to the stage, but she is clearly making an entrance. She played her first full game against St. Mary’s. From there, she was a consistent fixture in the defensive line. She played the full double-overtime game in the Bears’ Pac-12 opener against Utah and nearly the entire game in Cal’s 3-0 win over San Francisco. Most recently, she played the entire game against the then-No. 8 Bears’ toughest opponent yet: No. 2 UCLA. She earned rave reviews from her coach, who specifically picked her out as one of the strongest performers in the match.
“It feels like I’m dreaming sometimes,” Dickerson says. “I can’t imagine where I would be without it … I don’t know how to put it into words.
“It’s given me something to look forward to every day… I think I would be insane right now if I wasn’t on the soccer team.”
Taylor Brink covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that, the first time the Cal women’s soccer coaches saw Kelsie Dickerson play, they asked her to play against the Bears during a spring training game. In fact, it was the opposing team who asked Dickerson to play.