In the middle of November, the early signing period for the National Letter of Intent came and went, and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy goalie Julia Wilbekaitis wasn't even sure if she was going to …
In the middle of November, the early signing period for the National Letter of Intent came and went, and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy goalie Julia Wilbekaitis wasn't even sure if she was going to play soccer in college at all.
She'd been looking at schools in all three NCAA divisions and found it wasn't easy to find a soccer program that would be accommodating of her desire to study nursing.
Last spring her SCH teammate JoJo McShane, a forward who was the Inter-Ac League MVP in 2019, had agreed to sign with the University of Richmond. Committing around the same time to the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Charter striker Janae Stewart had also been highly recruited, and she was recently named to the 2020 Pa. Soccer Coaches Association All-State Team.
Suddenly, just before Thanksgiving, the process of picking a college began to move rapidly for Springside Chestnut Hill's Wilbekaitis.
She said that, figuratively, "I'd been all over the place with colleges. I didn't care so much what division the school was, as long as it was affordable and as long as I could play soccer and do nursing. My club coach with the Ukrainian Nationals told me that Seton Hall [a member of the Division I Big East Conference] was looking for a class of 2021 goalie."
She had contacted the New Jersey school when she was in 10th grade, but nothing concrete had materialized. Just this fall, the Pirates' coaching staff reviewed a lot more film of the SCH keeper, and then they watched her play in a club showcase event on Sunday, November 22.
She picked up the tale, "They e-mailed me on Tuesday and then we talked by phone on Wednesday. The day after Thanksgiving my mom and I went up there to visit, and I really liked the campus. The next Tuesday they called me with an offer, and I accepted."
In her choice of both sport and profession, Wilbekaitis was strongly influenced and inspired by members of her family. Her mother, Tracey, played soccer and studied nursing at East Stroudsburg University, and she is now an OR nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
"My grandmother was a nurse, too," the Springsider said, "and I have one cousin who's a nurse and another who's about to graduate from nursing school.
"I'd like to something similar to what my mother does, maybe become a nurse anesthetist," she continued. "I've always liked biology and chemistry and math, and the idea of helping people seems very rewarding to me."
Always somewhat tall for her age, Wilbekaitis now stands 5'9" tall (5'10" with cleats, she's quick to point out). In her early grade school years, she was a cheerleader, then her mother had her try soccer when she was nine years old.
"The coach saw my height and put me right in net," she recalled. "I didn't even know how to kick a ball."
She lived in Northeast Philadelphia until the summer between her eighth and ninth-grade school years, when she was also preparing to enter Springside Chestnut Hill. Her family moved out of the city and she switched from playing for the Players Development Academy club organization to the Ukrainian Nationals.
When she began to play in high school, she split halves in the goalcage with the Blue Devils' starter, Sena Houessou-Adin ('19). She took over as starting goalie as a junior, helping the Devils make a 12-0 run to the 2019 Inter-Ac League championship.
In this year's COVID-curtailed season Springside Chestnut Hill would win all of the five games it played, and during her tenure as a starter Wilbekaitis posted a total goals-against average of 0.60 and recorded 12 shutouts.
"I thought in my junior year I made a big breakthrough," observed the Devils' netminder, who became much more vocal in organizing the SCH defense. "We played a lot of good teams, and I knew I had to go out and be one of the leaders. I had very good defenders who would listen to me. I think knowing they had confidence in me gave me a lot of confidence in myself."
She already knows many of the steps she needs to take to ready herself for collegiate soccer.
"Everything in college is done faster and with more power, so I've been spending time in the gym to get stronger," she said. "I want to work on jumping and diving, playing the ball when I have to have my feet off the ground. Just overall, I'm working on my range and my technique."
As she moves forward, the accomplished goalkeeper hopes her recent choice between schools will prove as sound as the one she made four years ago.
"SCH has been great for me," she stated. "Looking back, coming here was absolutely the right decision."