Oct. 28, 2003
By Pete LaFleur
A quick rewind to 1990 finds Vanessa Pruzinsky in a fourth-grade class, during a special visitation day for parents of the children. One of the activities includes a multiplication flash-card drill, with two children standing in front of the teacher, eager to be the first to provide the correct answer.
Young Vanessa lives for the competition and particularly loves mathematics and science … so to say she is in her element would be an understatement. The shy, but driven, nine-year-old dominates the flash-card exercise, blurting out the answers before even the adults in the room have done the math in their heads.
She faces 30 classmates and “wins” every time. They start over, but it’s the same result: the 30 challengers slump back into their chairs.
The teacher then informs the visitors of a necessary alteration to this daily ritual.
“Now is the time when we ask Vanessa to sit down,” she explains. “So the other children can get a chance.”
Thirteen years later, as a graduate student and captain of the Notre Dame soccer team, Pruzinsky has not stopped moving – dominating in the classroom and on the field to stunning proportions. Few student-athletes in all of collegiate sport, past or present, have matched her all-around excellence.
The former national high school player of the year first made waves in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering as a sophomore, becoming the first female student ever to receive an “A” grade in the daunting Introduction to Chemical Engineering course. She also posted her third 4.0 semester GPA and followed with another 4.0 in the spring.
Pruzinsky was one of just three students that graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
Suddenly, there was talk of the unthinkable – graduating with a 4.0. It had been nearly 30 years since a “CHEG” major had graduated from Notre Dame with the perfect GPA and the only two previous 4.0 grads were males. Pruzinsky’s mentor, Dr. Jim Kohn, was an emeritus member of the chemical engineering faculty and he challenged his protege to aim for the elusive 4.0.
The final four semesters of the grueling curriculum provided plenty of potential pitfalls. More often than not, Pruzsinky resigned herself to the fact that she would not attain the unattainable.
“Every semester, Vanessa was just hoping to pass certain classes,” says her proud mother, Phyllis Pruzinsky.
“There was one class, Numerical Methods, that brought her to tears because it was so difficult. But what can you say about this kid except she puts her mind to something and achieves it. And she didn’t want to let down professor Kohn. He really believed in Vanessa and was a great source of motivation.”
Spurred on by her childhood competitiveness and Kohn’s guidance, Pruzinsky steadily added 4.0 GPAs to her report card. When the class of 2003 was honored at graduation, she represented one of just three 4.0 students in the entire class and received the College of Engineering’s prestigious Steiner Award, recognizing all-around excellence.
Kohn’s failing health prevented him from congratulating his star pupil, as he passed away shortly after final exams – making the accomplishment bittersweet.
“We assumed professor Kohn passed away before learning about Vanessa’s grades, but then I received a wonderful letter from his wife,” says Phyllis.
“Mrs. Kohn actually told her husband that Vanessa had achieved their common goal. She told him just a few days before he died and a smile came over his face. He cared tremendously for Vanessa and wanted the best for her – she was so fortunate to have his guidance along the way.”
Pruzinsky’s soccer career at Notre Dame also has featured tremendous success that has been tempered by various challenges. A prodigious goalscorer during her prep days with the Connecticut powerhouse Trumbull High School, Pruzinsky opted to attend Notre Dame because of its strong combination of academics and athletics.
Her first season coincided with the arrival of head coach Randy Waldrum, who altered the Irish formation from the “3-4-3” system that featured four midfielders to the 4-3-3 “inverted pyramid” system. The ’99 Irish featured a stable of proven forwards – led by the program’s top all-time goalscorers Jenny Heft and Jenny Streiffer – while there was a need at the outside back position, which demands regular runs into the offensive third to offset the absence of traditional flank midfielders.
The answer was inserting Pruzinsky at left back and she made an impressive transition, starting all 26 games and earning BIG EAST rookie-of-the-year honors for the 1999 NCAA runner-up squad. She then split time in 2000 as a starter at outside and central back, helping the top-ranked Irish lead the nation with an 0.39 goals-against average, and her third season in 2001 was spent at central back – with her postseason honors including first team all-BIG EAST and finalist recognition for the Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year Award.
Pruzinsky became the first female student to ever receive an “A” grade in the Introduction to Chemical Engineering course.
Notre Dame’s 2002 season was stunted by injuries to key players, with Pruzinsky limited to playing just two games before opting for surgery to correct a nagging ankle condition.
That frustration of 2002 has been transformed into the promise of ’03 – with Pruzinsky earning a fifth year of eligibility that she has used to lead a dominating defense that had yielded just five goals and 40 shots on goal in the first 19 games.
“Vanessa is such an inspiration in everything she does,” says versatile freshman Lizzie Reed, who has played at outside back, midfield and forward with the Irish.
“I can remember watching her play in the Final Four when she was a freshman and that was such a great achievement in itself. And nobody works as hard as she does – they even have to kick her out of the library at 2:00 a.m. On top of it all, she is just such a warm and humble person. She really sets the leadership tone for our whole team.”
Back at Trumbull High School, the trophy case that serves as a Vanessa Pruzinsky shrine includes a recent addition: the full-page portrait from a Sports Illustrated On Campus feature that highlights 4.0 student-athletes.
A local celebrity from a town of former Little League champs, Pruzinsky has soared well beyond her legendary status as a flash-card whizkid. The world’s premier pharmaceutical companies already are lining up to enlist her services. But they’ll have to wait their turn, as there’s plenty of soccer left to be played for Pruzinsky as she looks to close her career with a perfect ending as national champions.
Note: also see the following website link for an earlier 2002 article on Pruzinsky: http://und.ocsn.com/sports/w-soccer/spec-rel/091702aaa.html