Amidst the bustle of a Kensington diner, second-year Varsity Blues striker Erin Kelly scans the menu intently. She hums and haws and finally settles for the huevos rancheros, at the hasty recommendation of an impatient waitress.

After placing our order, Kelly stares across at me with apprehension, her fingers interlaced tightly. She can stall no longer.

She smiles nervously and fidgets in her chair. It’s obvious that she’s not in her element. “I can just start talking?” she asks.

The same cannot be said for when she’s on the field. After outplaying even the boys’ team in her hometown of Pembroke, Ontario, Kelly began making hour-long treks to nearby Ottawa in middle school to play striker on elite club teams, where she started every game and scored in most.

A healthy dose of natural talent set her apart from her small-town crowd: clocking in at a whopping six foot two inches and boasting a naturally-athletic build, some would chalk up Kelly’s success on the field exclusively to winning the genetic lottery, but those who know her would disagree.

Erin Kelly catches a small fish. PHOTO COURTESY of ERIN KELLY

“When you make that pass up top to her, you trust that she’ll get the job done, which she always seems to do!” says Blues goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis.

“She brings all of the characteristics one would need in a striker — tall, quick feet, technical, and the courage to take shots.”

Captain and fellow striker Chelsea Cheung adds that Kelly’s “athleticism and willingness to work are two of her greatest strengths [and] now in her second year, Erin has not only her strength and work ethic, but now experience to help her play a bigger role on the team.”

Many would say that it is Kelly’s ability to ‘see’ the field in terms of plays and a team in terms of individual strengths — what her forward counterpart Natasha Klasios calls having a “soccer brain” — that makes her stand out.

This ability to predict and analyze behaviours extends into her life off of the field: Kelly intends to major in Cognitive Science or Psychology, explaining simply that she “likes to understand people.”

“Personalities can definitely play a big role, and the first thing I think of… is [with] coaching staff too, and how you get along with coaches and your relationship with coach and player.”

Teammates appreciate her ability to predict their plays as well. “She… makes everyone around her feel ten times more comfortable, which is critical in the game of soccer,” says Staggolis.

However, Kelly admits that it was this same analytical perspective that held her back in her rookie season. “In the home opener last year, I hit a crossbar. And I think that’s the closest I ever got [to scoring], because I wasn’t in my head. I wasn’t overthinking it,” she recalls.

From there, she says the pressures of starting on a varsity team as a rookie, combined with her tendency to overthink, started to get the best of her. “I think I lost sight a little bit of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and got caught up in expectations for myself, imposed by myself,” she reflects.

This year, Kelly has discovered that this intrinsic pressure to prove herself, a reflexive mentality that has stayed with her from the beginning of her athletic career as a young soccer star on the boys’ team, doesn’t always have to be a source of anxiety.

“I had to prove myself just because I was a girl,” she admits. “And of course, the transition to elite soccer in Ottawa and then again to the OUA [Ontario University Athletics] with the Blues, gives me constant reminders that there’s really good women’s soccer being played out there, and to strive to improve every day.”

Kelly is intent on using her previous source of anxiety as a source of strength and motivation.

Erin Kelly stares intensely at the ball. PHOTO by MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY of THE VARSITY BLUES

This shift in perspective is what she believes will keep her on an upwards trajectory throughout her second year of varsity sports, and toward scoring her first goal for the Blues. “I never went in with a can-do attitude and I was hoping for the best, instead of expecting the best of myself… That is different this year.”

Anyone watching closely enough would concur. With plenty of chances in the Blues home opener against Trent, Kelly seems closer than ever to her debut varsity goal. It all seems to boil down to an epic leap in confidence and an improved understanding of her place on the field.

Though with a positional counterpart like Natasha Klasios, who ranked ninth in the OUA league with nine goals in 2017 and represented Canada at the 2017 Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU) Summer Universiade in Taipei, it’s understandable why Kelly was self-conscious as a rookie.

“When I joined the program I had heard a lot about Tash,” she admits, “but she actually wasn’t there when I started because she was competing at the FISU Games.”

This ultimately worked to Kelly’s advantage because she got invaluable time on the field as a rookie, allowing her to find her footing as a striker on the Blues. This year, she intends on working on her partnership with Klasios.

“We are trying to work as a pair to create chances for each other,” says Kelly.

Klasios agrees. “We are definitely continuing to get in sync with one another… As we link up more in future games, hopefully she’ll be feeding me the ball behind the lines and also the reverse — me playing Erin in behind the lines.” Kelly is also confident that this partnership will be fruitful, saying that Klasios is “a great person to learn from.”

Despite heaps of drive and natural talent, Kelly is quick to attribute the support from her teammates and coaches for her improvements — especially the older girls on the team. For example, Kelly spoke very highly of Cheung: “She’s a great leader to the entire group, and especially because we do have a lot of younger players this year, so that’s important.”

In general, Kelly seems to be constantly seeking ways to improve her game and to become an even more powerful asset to the team. “It’s good to learn from [the older girls], so I have the foresight to see how quickly the time can pass and what I can do in that time,” she says.

By constantly improving, Kelly has high hopes for herself and for her team. When I ask if she thinks that the Blues can make it to the OUA quarterfinals this year, she smiles confidently.

“Our captains Julia, Tash, and Chelsea are all leading us in the direction we need to go to. The thing is, once you get yourself into the playoffs, anything can happen. It’s about getting there.”

And of course, there’s the ever-pressing issue of scoring her first Varsity Blues goal. “I have more confidence and I know what I’m capable of, and I’m hungrier,” says Kelly.

Fair warning to the other teams.