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October 8, 2008

Recent hurricanes remind soccer star of the one that brought her to Tech

By: Matt Kovatch

Emily Jukich

Like most people around the country, Emily Jukich watched in despair during late August of 2005 as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf coast and ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. She watched as New Orleans, once a vibrant and culture-laden destination, was rendered a shell of its former self. And she watched as the affected communities struggled – sometimes in vain – to recuperate from the destruction.

But unlike most people, the current Virginia Tech junior couldn’t simply turn off the television and go on with her life. She had some thinking to do.

No, her home wasn’t destroyed, nor did she lose any friends or family members. She was just about to begin her senior year at Centreville High School in northern Virginia, but less than one year earlier as a junior, she verbally committed to attend Tulane University – situated right in the heart of New Orleans – to play collegiate soccer.

“I hate admitting it now, but I did choose Tulane over Tech,” Jukich said of the decision she made after visiting a handful of schools during the fall of 2004. “But [New Orleans] was so beautiful. I just loved the city and the culture there – it was like a different world.”

So as her senior year of high school approached and college got that much closer, Jukich did what many soon-to-be undergrads do – she began daydreaming about what her life would be like away from home for the first time. Even her parents were beginning to plot out vacation days and flight arrangements to go see her play for the Green Wave. But then Katrina arrived.

“I was glued to the television,” Jukich remembered. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how the city that I once saw was clearly not what it was going to be when I got there. What I had visited and seen and pictured what my life would be like – I knew that when I got there, it wouldn’t be like that at all. It was very sad and hard to watch that because that’s where I thought I was going to be.”

And up until December 6th – four days before her birthday – that’s where she was headed. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina that fall, much of Tulane’s campus was under water, but the athletics programs soldiered on. Aside from cross country and track and field, all of the Green Wave’s sports teams relocated to four other universities throughout Louisiana and Texas. The women’s soccer team that awaited Jukich’s arrival moved to Texas A&M for the 2005 season and played many of its games on the road. In fact, Jukich knew a couple of players on that team from her area in northern Virginia, and she planned on joining them for the next season.

“I was still going to go,” she said. “They still had the soccer program. I never said, ‘Oh, I’m not going there anymore just because of this.’ That never crossed my mind. I felt like I would be betraying [Tulane].”

But following that nomadic season, on December 6th, Tulane deemed it necessary to drop half of its athletics programs until the university could get back on its feet, and women’s soccer was one of them (and in fact, the program has yet to resurface – it hopes to by 2010). Soon after that decision was made, Tulane’s head coach called Jukich with the news – her team was no more, and Jukich was free to find another opportunity.

“It was really upsetting at first,” Jukich said. “I still wanted to go there, even with all of the destruction. I felt that I could maybe make an impact by helping out or something, but after a few days, I just kind of took it as a blessing in disguise and that what happened was what was supposed to happen.”

Much like a soccer player redirecting a corner kick into the net, Hurricane Katrina (seen here as it bore down on New Orleans in August of 2005) altered Emily Jukich's path from Tulane to Virginia Tech.

Although she wanted to help, Jukich couldn’t imagine life without soccer. And with her type of talent – she’s currently one of the top goal scorers in the ultra-competitive ACC – who could blame her? So she set about finding another option, and she had her club coach make some calls to the schools that she had visited during the recruiting process. Virginia Tech just happened to be her No. 2 choice behind Tulane, and Tech head coach Kelly Cagle just happened to be ecstatic that a player of Jukich’s caliber would fall into the Hokies’ lap.

“It was an easy decision from there,” Jukich recalled. “I made the choice to come to Tech almost instantly. Everything just kind of fell into place.”

Though Jukich’s path had been changed forever, her thoughts remained with the good people of Tulane. She knew that most of those involved weren’t nearly as lucky as her and didn’t have a convenient option to fall back on.

“It’s so cliché, but I told myself then that everything happens for a reason,” Jukich said. “But looking back, so much heartache happened to so many people, and somehow the same circumstances caused me to be at Virginia Tech. It’s so weird to think that what was so bad for so many people turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. Now I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else but here.”

And Jukich’s teammates couldn’t imagine her anywhere else, either. After making the ACC All-Freshman Team with seven goals in her first season, and turning in a solid sophomore campaign, the forward tallied 10 goals over her first 12 games of this season to help the Hokies get off to a hot start.

Coincidentally, though, her success this year has all happened in the wake of a particularly violent hurricane season that saw storms battering the American coastlines all summer. Gustav ran through New Orleans, Hanna swept up the Eastern Seaboard, Ike hammered the Houston area, and even Kyle flirted with land as far north as Maine. It all served as a stirring reminder to Jukich of her experience three years ago and what could have been. So did another tragedy – the shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in April of 2007.

“Although they’re so different, situations like those [the hurricane and the shootings] can be related by the fact that the people who attend those schools – their lives are dramatically altered by the events,” Jukich said. “Usually in the end, it makes everyone stronger. The people who were already down at Tulane – they were uprooted. Some of them were freshmen who had just moved into their dorms. They were uprooted from their campus, and half of their school probably had to leave after that. Things affect people in different ways, but they still dramatically alter your life.”

Jukich still desires to get back to New Orleans – maybe over winter or spring break for a vacation – and especially now to see how it’s changed since the hurricanes have passed through. But until then, she’ll keep counting her blessings that the Hokies were available to take her in when Tulane wasn’t able to do so.

“My heart goes out to all of those people down there, because I was supposed to be part of that – that was where I was supposed to be,” Jukich said. “I’m not, but [the recent hurricanes] brought back some memories, and it just makes me appreciate Virginia Tech that much more. It’s the best place in the world.”

Getting to know … #10 Emily Jukich Born: 12/10/87 in Media, Pa.
Hometown/High School: Clifton, Va./Centreville H.S.
Family: Parents Nicholas and Kathleen, siblings Melissa, Matt and Nicole.
Favorite sport other than soccer: I played basketball and street hockey growing up.
CDs in your car right now: Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Last movie you went to see: The Dark Knight.
Favorite Blacksburg restaurant and what you order: Poor Billy’s for sushi or any kind of seafood. They have good surf and turf.
Pre-game superstitions: I don’t have any. I used to, but I would mess it up and it would get me all whacked out, so I don’t have them anymore.
Roommates: Teammates Robin Chidester, Kylie Stankovics and Megan Strawther. And we live next door to Ashley Seldon and Kim Hickey.
Favorite TV shows: The Office, 30 Rock, Chelsea Lately, Lost.
First job: Wegman’s (grocery store) in the bakery.
Favorite place to play: The Florida trips (Miami and Tallahassee) are always fun. They’re like mini vacations.
Major: Political Science. But I actually really want to go to culinary school – I’ve always loved to cook. I really wanted to play soccer, and you can’t do that at culinary school. So I had to pick a major and I like politics.
Obama or McCain: That’s off the record!