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The Varsity Athlete of the Year: Emily Ziraldo

Emily Ziraldo and teammates share thoughts on her spectacular season
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Third-year field hockey player Emily Ziraldo poses with her 2017-2018 The Varsity Athlete of the Year award. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Third-year field hockey player Emily Ziraldo poses with her 2017-2018 The Varsity Athlete of the Year award. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

A ‘sophomore slump’ is the phrase used to describe when athletes in their second season struggle to replicate the same success they achieved as rookies. The slump occurs when opponents have made the necessary adjustments to combat the sophomore player’s skill, and the once-successful athlete is forced to make changes to stay successful; the ones who can’t adapt get caught in the dreaded slump.

University of Toronto Varsity Blues field hockey midfielder Emily Ziraldo proved to be immune to the trend this past season. She tied with rookie forward Anna Costanzo for the team lead in goals with six, earned U SPORTS all-Canadian and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) All-Star honours, and was key in helping the Blues earn bronze in the OUA Championships to salvage the team’s injury-plagued season. Emily is also a nominee for the Varsity Blues’ annual T-Holders’ Female athlete of the year, presented to the female Blues athlete who exhibits the highest degree of athletic excellence.

Today, however, the third-year student — who was unable to play for the Blues in her first year due to a stress fracture in her foot — is noticeably nervous. We sit across from each other under two bright key lights — the camera in front of us will capture every pause and mistake. She’s wired with a microphone to add to the already unnatural experience of being interviewed.

Ziraldo was named the 2017–2018 The Varsity Athlete of the Year, narrowly defeating world champion swimmer Kylie Masse in a tight race to become the inaugural recipient of the award. Her framed award sits face up on a nearby white sofa. 

These circumstances are a bit different compared to the last time I interviewed her. Back in late September — in the middle of a rollercoaster season that ended well short of the team’s overall goal — she was at least situated in her element sitting beside her identical twin sister, Hilary, in the bleachers ahead of practice at Back Campus Field.

Emily recites last season as if it occured yesterday; the camera becomes an invisible object with no effect on the conversation at hand.

“Field hockey is a team sport and no individual can do it by themselves,” says Emily. “It’s such a fast game that you need the support of all your teammates and everyone has to be on the same page.” Throughout the following week, her teammates — defender Julia Costanzo and midfielders Rachel Spouge and Hilary —  each enter The Varsity individually to chime in on the past season and provide their own perspective on what Emily was able to accomplish.

The 2017 season began with great expectations, with a new head coach at the helm, strong returning veterans, and a close-knit group of third-year players. Even with the departure of star Allison Lee, the team still had an immeasurable confidence level with three consecutive OUA banners behind them.

The Blues started to take form during their preseason exhibition matches against National College Athlete Association (NCAA) Division I schools in the United States, but early into the regular season, a host of injuries severely impacted and changed the composition of their lineup. The team was forced to play all of their rookies and at one point even saw a goalie enter the match as a field player.

Despite having four captains on the roster, there was a period of time when Julia was the only captain on the field. Rachel and Emily “were definitely helpful in those two weeks, which were the roughest weeks of the season,” says Julia.

“We had a stretch where a lot of our fourth- and fifth-year players were the ones injured, so at points me and Emily were the oldest players on the field and we’re only in our third year,” says Julia.

“I think that we never really got a flow on the field, or like a mojo,” says Spouge.

“We never got back to that team that played at Columbia University,” adds Julia.

Spouge says the team was in a bit of a transitional year without a clear goal scorer to lead the Blues attack. The team’s dynamic was far different than in years past when stars like Amanda Woodcroft, Nikki Woodcroft, and Lee provided the bulk of the team offense.

Emily stepped up when her team needed it most, but she admits it wasn’t easy.

“At the beginning [of the season], I put a lot of pressure on myself to score and then mentally, that got to me and it just didn’t work out,” says Emily. “I moved a bit more to forward from the midfield and that definitely helped.”

Emily was a vocal presence on the field, able to answer questions posed by younger players and leading by example. When the Ziraldo twins played at the provincial level, Hilary says coaches often commented that Emily ran too much and was making herself tired. It’s the signature trait of the third-year midfielder — beyond her skill, speed, and versatility — how hard she works is the first thing you’ll notice.

“Yeah she’s making herself tired, but she’s going to keep going because if you’re not there she will be,” says Hilary. “Nothing stops her… When she’s on the field she knows that’s her chance to perform.”

The sense of urgency that Emily plays with only increased after she missed out on playing with the Blues in her first year. Hilary became a captain before Emily had even played a game.

“Missing out on first year was pretty disappointing… When you come to university, you’re really looking forward to get going and get playing,” says Emily.

The hat-trick she scored in the first-half against the Western Mustangs was Emily’s standout performance of the season.

“The first-half hat-trick, that was really nice [and] unexpected, I think for me a lot of it’s mental,” she says. “That game, I think we already knew we were going to come third in the league; everything was solidified going into playoffs, so it was kind of a no pressure game. Just play your best and it just happened.”

Emily played drop centre-forward for the final two weekends of the season, after Hilary returned from injury and Spouge got injured. “She was getting thrown all over the place as usual, it drives her,” says Spouge. “She has this level of competitiveness and when it turns on, it really does.”

Following the season, Emily and Spouge flew to Vancouver to be honoured as all-Canadians at the annual U SPORTS awards gala. The trip also afforded Spouge the chance to be home early before reading week.

“It’s an honour,” says Spouge. “I’m from Vancouver… and I got to show [Emily] around. It was pretty fun.”

Emily, however, wasn’t fully there — her mind was still focused on the team’s failure to win the OUA Championship. “I was thinking more about the team and the bronze, but afterward thinking back, it was really nice to get recognized like that,” says Emily.

Spouge struggles to contain how much she enjoys playing alongside Emily. The enthusiasm in her voice is unrivaled, especially when she recounts the feeling of watching her teammate score. “The game that I love are the 2v1s, it’s kind of fun to fool them and pass with another player and make [opponents] run around like chickens,” she laughs. “The 2v1s with her are my favourite… it fills the soul.”

“The skills she has are so quick, it’s kind of like, ‘She’s going down the field, it’s going to happen’ and it’s like, ‘Goal!’” shouts Spouge. “I don’t think I can do that.”

Julia provides the opposite viewpoint. “Defending Emily in practice is not fun,” she says. “She’s really fast, so I get tired, and she’s really skilled as well.”

The pair — who live together along with Hilary, goaltender Sara Fredo, and two players on the Blues women’s soccer team — have developed a friendly competitive rivalry.  “We’ll push each other around — half joking, half not — half being serious,” she adds. “She definitely pushes the pace at practice.”

“If she’s going down with the ball, even though she’s running faster than me, even though I can’t run that fast, I’m going to run as fast as I can,” says Julia. She believes their high level of competition sets the right tone in practice and provides a great example for the rest of the team.

Off the field, Emily enjoys spending time with friends, though they often have to work around her busy schedule. During the season, the team practice every night and holds lifting sessions twice a week. She also volunteers at a hospital in her spare time.

Spouge says that Emily is the “kindest person you’ll ever meet.”

“She’s a teammate that you can always rely on [and] someone who you can go to for advice,” says Spouge. “She’s extremely hard working in school and that just shows on the field as well because her work ethic is insane.”

Her teammates also believe her particular sense of humour is one of her most distinguishing features.

“Emily jokes around… If she thinks that something is funny, she’ll just say it and then everyone laughs,” says Julia. “Hilary is definitely more calculated, she likes to think and make sure it’s funny before she says it, so she doesn’t say as many crazy or outrageous things that Emily does.”

“Emily has more of like dry humour, she says what everyone’s thinking but not what everyone’s going to say,” laughs Hilary.

There’s a sense of anticipation about next season that’s shared among the team. The adversity they battled through last fall has prepared them for the unknown that surrounds the upcoming season.

Provincial team commitments start again in April for the upcoming summer season. The team is in the process of recruiting to fill out the last few remaining spots on their roster and are focused on getting stronger and preventing injuries.

“I’m really excited to be playing with Hilary [and] playing with the rest of the team,” says Emily. “I think next year we can really make an impact in the OUA and we’re going for gold again.”

“She’ll be a leader no matter what her role is,” adds Hilary.