Sept. 17, 2002
By Pete LaFleur
As the Notre Dame campus began to spring to life with the onrush of the 2002 fall semester, one “seemingly average” senior prepared to embark on the final chapter of her career as a student-athlete – a journey that has been anything but average.
Women’s soccer captain Vanessa Pruzinsky may not be the most well-known athlete on the Notre Dame campus. And she definitely is not the type of social butterfly or self-promoter who would gain wide-spread notice beyond the walls of Alumni Field, Cushing Hall of Engineering or Badin Hall, the quaint and ancient residence hall that fittingly matches the reserved – but vibrant – personality of its residents.
But when one takes stock of elite student-athletes – with the emphasis on both sides of that hyphen – in any sport, that’s when Pruzinsky truly shines like no other. Despite playing at the often-unheralded defender position for the women’s soccer team, she owns one of the most impressive statistical streaks of any Notre Dame student-athlete: Six semesters at Notre Dame, six 4.0 grade-point averages (plus straight A’s in various summer-school courses at Yale and Fairfield) … as a chemical engineering major, playing for a team that regularly sees its season stretch into December while pursuing the national title.
“Vanessa is the classic definition of student-athlete,” says Irish head coach Randy Waldrum, who arrived at Notre Dame shortly before Pruzinsky began her stellar collegiate career in 1999.
“Working with a player of Vanessa’s caliber is a coach’s dream and she’s such a great representative of Notre Dame. You’d never know about that greatness if you ran into her around campus, because she’s also one of the most humble kids you’ll ever meet.”
According to representatives of the chemical engineering department, only two previous Notre Dame students have graduated with a 4.0 cumulative grade-point average after completing the challenging curriculum in chemical engineering. If Pruzinsky were to add two more 4.0 semesters, she would become the third member (and first since 1974) of that very elite group. She also would become the first female student to graduate with a 4.0 in chemical engineering, after already becoming the first female ever to earn an A grade in the sophomore-year introduction to chemical engineering course.
Pruzinsky’s academic accomplishments are all the more noteworthy when taking her athletics endeavors into account. In addition to facing the time demands that challenge every student-athlete, the Trumbull, Conn., native has maintained her academic excellence while performing at a similarly high level on the field. A first team all-BIG EAST Conference selection as a junior in 2001, she went on to be one of just three defenders (and 15 players overall) who was named a finalist for the Missouri Athletic Club national player-of-the-year award. She was called into the U.S. Under-21 national Team camp three times last spring, ultimately having to decline the last invitation in order to focus on her final exams.
And as Pruzinsky enters her senior season with the Irish, she is confronted with two new challenges: an expanded leadership role as one of the team’s captains and a frustrating rehabilitation from a nagging ankle injury.
“Right now I’m just trying to be patient with the injury and have a positive attitude while helping the team as much as possible off the field,” says Pruzinsky, whose durability in her first three seasons included starting 71 of Notre Dame’s 72 games.
Such a focus on team goals was seen last spring, after the pair of U.S. under-21 training camps.
“Any time you can go into a camp like that and learn new things that you can bring back to help your team, that’s a great opportunity,” says Pruzinsky.
Waldrum has seen Pruzinsky’s leadership skills expand in recent months.
“Vanessa always has been a tremendous leader on the field and is one of the best defenders in the country ,” he says.
“But the thing that has me most excited is Vanessa has started to come out of her shell. It’s like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials when he speaks and everyone gets real quiet. Her teammates have tremendous respect for her and her comments make a big impact.”
Pruzinsky’s faculty mentor in the athletic department’s Academic Honors Program has been Dr. Jim Kohn, an emeritus member of the chemical engineering faculty who first began teaching at his alma mater in 1955. Kohn has seen his share of elite students and is well-versed in the athletic and academic achievements of Notre Dame student-athletes, dating back to the late 1940s.
“Vanessa is a student who puts her nose to the grindstone and gets the work done. She has tremendous time demands but has the self-motivation to get things in gear and get caught up very quickly,” says Kohn.
“I never expect to see anyone maintain a 4.0 as a chemical engineering major – only two ever have done so – because it is just such a demanding series of courses and there never is an easy semester.
“One of the more amazing things about Vanessa is she actually demeans her own intelligence. She’s not one of these kids who says ‘I’m smart by nature and own it all to God.’ She just thinks that she is a very fortunate individual who has earned an athletic scholarship to Notre Dame and is trying to make the most of it.”
While sidelined with her injury, Pruzinsky gained valuable work experience this past summer at a power plant near her hometown. She spent weeks working with engineers in an environment where terms such as “acid chemical cleaning projects” and “reverse osmosis water de-ionization systems” were part of the everyday vernacular.
“It was a great experience for me, a challenge and a chance to see how the things I have learned translate to the real world,” sys Pruzinsky, whose postgraduate studies could be in the area of bio-medical engineering.
Pruzinsky joined former basketball great Bob Arnzen (’67-’68) as the only Notre Dame student-athletes ever to be named a first-team Academic All-American as both a sophomore and junior (freshmen are not eligible). Kohn also compares her accomplishments to those of former All-America football center Tim Ruddy (’94), who was named the Academic All-American of the Year for Division I football after graduating with a 3.86 grade-point average as a mechanical engineering major (with three 4.0s).
“In my view, Vanessa and Tim are two of the greatest student-athletes that every have played at Notre Dame – and they always will be considered among that upper echelon. They both are very special and unique individuals,” says Kohn.
Pruzinsky never has backed down from a challenge, hitting the soccer field and the chemistry books with equal intensity. A two-time national player of the year while starring as a forward and midfielder at Trumbull High School, she has developed into one of the nation’s most respected players after idolizing childhood heroes such as Brazilian soccer legend Pele and U.S. National Team star Christine Lilly, a native of nearby Wilton, Conn. She also enjoyed the benefits of playing on youth teams coached by her father Ken Pruzinsky while living at a house that featured three full-size soccer goals in the backyard.
Even as a 12-year-old, Pruzinsky showed glimpses of the hard-nosed play that now characterizes her every game. Current Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith often relates a classic story about his first practice as coach of Pruzinsky’s Weston Wild Things club team.
That practice began with a “1-versus-1” dribbling drill. When asked to pair up, Pruzinsky’s teammates instinctively avoided their hard-nosed forward and Meredith was the only one left to participate with Pruzinsky.
“Rudy took it easy on Vanessa but he loves to tell how she knocked him over at one point in the drill,” says Phyllis Pruzinsky, whose admitted “gift of gab” was passed onto her eldest daughter Stephanie, but skipped over Vanessa.
“After Rudy fell down, Vanessa walked over to him and said, ‘If you’re going to be a wimp, you can’t play soccer.’ He knew he had a pretty unique player on his hands.”
Pruzinsky’s collection of 4.0 semester GPAs is a testament to a level of self-discipline – and competitiveness – that she honed at an early age. She professes to be a “slow learner” who forces herself to study seemingly at every free moment, while also grabbing plenty of nightly sleep.
“Vanessa always has pushed herself,” says her proud mother.
“Even at seven years old, she’d be dribbling around the house or out in the yard practicing her shooting. She’s always been very competitive and driven to be her best.”
Waldrum’s arrival in ’99 was accompanied by a major decision to alter Notre Dame’s formation. Previously, the Irish played a “3-4-3” system that featured four midfielders, with Waldrum shifting to a unique 4-3-3 “inverted pyramid” system that he used effectively at Baylor.
“We didn’t have the type of flank midfielders needed in the 3-4-3, but the 4-3-3 was a great system for our players,” says Waldrum.
“Of course, we still had to locate a position for Vanessa. Outside back ended up being the best fit.”
Pruzinsky admits to being surprised with the sudden switch. She had more than proven her worth as an offensive player – racking up 79 goals as a prep – but Notre Dame already was overflowing with forward options.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I just wanted to play, so I tried to learn the position as quickly as possible,” says Pruzinsky, who credits 1999 central defenders Jen Grubb and Kelly Lindsey with easing her transition.
Pruzinsky settled in at the left back position and started all 26 games for the NCAA runner-up squad while being named the BIG EAST rookie of the year.
“Vanessa played like a veteran and she was very fit and eager to learn. She was up to the challenge,” says Waldrum.
Pruzinsky split the 2000 season as a starter at both outside back and central defender, helping the top-ranked Irish lead the nation with an 0.39 goals-against average. Her third season was spent exclusively at central back, with the option of playing centrally or outside in 2002.
Looking to the future, Waldrum foresees his top defender becoming one of the most coveted players in the Women’s United Soccer Association (which just completed its second season).
“Vanessa is such a natural fit as a central defender because of her great combination of speed, athleticism and strength,” says Waldrum.
“But her biggest attribute may be her work ethic. She’s not a spoiled athlete who does well in games but slacks off in training. She has such a workmanlike approach, never complains and is focused every day on becoming better.
“Combine that with her tremendous all-around skills and you have a pretty special player.”
Pruzinsky now finds herself providing guidance for the younger Irish players. In particular, she can empathize with sophomore Candace Chapman, a highly-touted forward with the Canadian national team program who has starred at right back for the Irish defense.
“I’m much more comfortable helping us getting organized and I really like playing in the back,” says Pruzinsky. “You can see the whole field in front of you, and now I’m the one doing the tackling.”
As she looks ahead to her rapidly approaching graduation, Pruzinsky is content to excel as the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense, while the Irish forwards grab most of the headlines. A self-proclaimed “shy person” who prefers to mull over her response before speaking, she never will be one to blow her own horn.
She’ll just let her play – and her report card – do the talking.
Pete LaFleur is a ’90 Notre Dame graduate and currently in his seventh season as an assistant sports information director for the Irish.