NEWTOWN SQUARE — When Olivia Dirks travels to Orlando, Fla., Saturday, the Episcopal Academy senior will be in unique company.
It’s not just that she’s one of 40 girls selected for the sixth annual High School All-American Game. Nor is it that she’s graced the All-American stage before via the Under Armour All-American lacrosse festivities.
More unique still is that unlike her peers in the Sunshine State, Dirks might be the only one for whom the All-American celebration is her last organized soccer game, for a while at least.
The natural question — which Dirks deflects like it’s a would-be marker on the pitch, opting for modesty as the method instead of her usual fearsome stride — is how, in a world of ever-earlier specialization, does an athlete rise to such prominence in essentially her secondary sport?
“I always thought I would play soccer in college,” Dirks said. “All throughout elementary and middle school, I really did love soccer and I thought I was going to play it in college. And then eighth grade, when college recruiting was really high, I started getting a lot of interest and then I did love lacrosse too, so it was a really hard decision. But at the end of the day, I just really love both of the sports, so it’s great to play them both.”
She quickly amends “both” to mean all three, since on this day, Dirks is chatting before dashing off to basketball practice. The trip to Florida looms Friday, and at least there’s a lull in lacrosse demands, which dominate her summer and hum in the background all fall.
“There’s not much downtime,” she said. “But that’s what makes my life fun and interesting. I love it. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
Within all those obligations, soccer holds a special place. It was Dirks’ introduction to Episcopal Academy when she arrived in ninth grade, what the Wayne native describes as a last-minute decision to eschew Conestoga for private school. From that late-August choice, she threw herself into soccer, her gateway to familiarity in new environs.
“That was the first thing I did here,” she said. “Soccer season really made me love EA so much, and our teams have been just awesome, so it’s not just a way to stay in shape. I just love it.”
It’s worked out pretty well for all involved. This year, Dirks led the Churchwomen to a long-sought triumph in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association Tournament and 12 total wins. For those efforts, she is the 2018 Daily Times Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
She’s joined on the All-Delco team by EA’s Laila Payton, Raina Kuzemka and Anna Salvucci; Haverford’s trio of Rebekah Cunningham, Annalena O’Reilly and Alison Durfee; Penncrest defender/forward Sarah Hughes; Ridley midfielder Rylie Butler; Strath Haven midfielder Maggie Forbes; Garnet Valley midfielder Alyssa Saito and Archbishop Carroll forward Paige Mastripolito.
It’s the second All-Delco nod for Hughes, Forbes, Kuzemka, Salvucci, O’Reilly and Dirks. Forbes, an all-state selection, is a sophomore. She and juniors Payton and Kuzemka represent the squad’s underclassmen. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
• • •
EA’s soccer team boasts so much skill, but Dirks stands apart in one regard: She’s the only member of the team’s top tier who won’t play soccer in college. Salvucci is bound for the University of Connecticut, Payton for Old Dominion. Second-teamers Lauren Cunningham (Lafayette) and Maddie Loughead (Richmond) have soccer in their future, while Kuzemka has fielded several offers.
Most compete in other sports at EA. But Dirks, a lacrosse All-Delco and Penn State signee, still brings a unique view when she drops into the soccer realm.
“They’re a great group of girls who’ve played soccer all their lives and have so many skills,” she said. “I think I bring a little different of a perspective to it because I just have fun with it and they’re a little more intense, so it’s a perfect balance.”
Dirks’ position isn’t unprecedented. Hannah Keating, the 2014 Player of the Year from Agnes Irwin, plays lacrosse at Harvard. Her predecessor, Strath Haven’s Allie Wilson, ran track at Monmouth, and 2012 POY Morgan Glassford of Haven went to Temple for lacrosse (though she used her graduate-school fifth year to return to soccer in 2017).
Wherever their futures lie, the combination was effective in the present. The midfield trio of Kuzemka, Salvucci and Dirks developed a potent synthesis that accounted for 32 goals and 24 assists this season.
“We work really well with each other and combine with each other,” Dirks said. “Raina just knows where I am and she’ll play it into a gap and I’ll run into it. Same with Anna, we assist each other a lot and it’s really funny sometimes to see how much we can connect.”
Their versatility posed an extra challenge. Dirks stretched the field vertically and horizontally with 13 goals and eight assists. Salvucci’s knack for operating in tight spaces in the middle of the pitch made her a fit at any level of midfield. Ditto Kuzemka, who played deeper this year to bolster the middle of the park in a free-wheeling Inter-Ac League.
“It makes our team so much more adaptable when things aren’t going right,” Dirks said. “We can just change something up really quickly because we have such great players, so that made it really fun to play with them because they can play all over.”
That process reached its apotheosis in the PAISAA final. The Churchwomen tied Baldwin, 3-3, thanks to two goals and an assist from Dirks. She converted a penalty kick in the shootout to tie it at 3-all after the first of Allie Bush’s two saves rallied EA from a deficit, allowing Loughead to clinch the win. The memory still gives Dirks goosebumps.
After losing in the final as freshmen and juniors, finally breaking through was a season goal. In the postgame elation, Dirks played the role of the trophy’s unofficial guardian.
“It was just really disappointing that we didn’t win it those years,” Dirks said. “So we had that feeling, and we didn’t want to feel that feeling that we lost (again). We built up all this energy and we’re like, ‘we’re going to win it this year. This is it.’ And that’s what we worked all season for. Even though we didn’t come out on top for the Inter-Ac, we still knew in the back of our minds that we could win PAISAA, so we worked so hard all season for this.”
Saturday’s All-American game is the culmination of that journey. But is it the end of the soccer road for Dirks? She’s pretty sure it isn’t.
“I don’t think this is the end,” she said. “I definitely will always love it, and if I ever get a chance to play it, I will definitely take that chance.”
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