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August 11, 2009

A learning experience like no other - After a summer in Vietnam, Robin Chidester returns to the Hokies aiming to help them build on last year's tremendous season

By: Matt Kovatch

Robib Chidester poses with some of the children she helped coach over the summer in Vietnam.

It was another blisteringly hot day in rural Vietnam, and Robin Chidester reached down for what she thought, or at least hoped, was a piece of chicken. It was the latest offering in what had become a long line of ‘mystery meat’ at the dinner table in the southeastern Asian country that she was visiting this past summer.

But as she poked around at it, she quickly realized that it wasn’t a typical drumstick. Glancing back down at the table, she noticed that what she was holding was just part of a creature that had literally been sliced – not carefully carved – into pieces. What Chidester was gripping was not the bone of a chicken leg, but the bill of duck, with the rest of its head and neck – vertebrae and all – clearly attached and visible upon further review.

Though Chidester, a senior on the Virginia Tech women’s soccer team, ultimately passed on the decapitated waterfowl, she was able to help herself to some of the Vietnamese fruit that she said makes the fruit over here pale in comparison.

“The fruit over there is amazing,” she said. “There are all kinds of exotic fruits that I had never even heard of and they serve it after every meal.”

What does this have to do with soccer? Not much at all, but it was just one of the many memorable moments that Chidester experienced during what had to be one of the most interesting summers spent by any Virginia Tech student-athlete.

Chidester, along with former women’s soccer players Ashley Owens and Ashley Seldon, as well as former men’s soccer player Taylor Walsh, spent three weeks in Vietnam this past June as part of the “Coach for College” program. The program, in short, is a global initiative to promote higher education through sports. In particular (according to the “Coach for College” Web site), it provides a forum for American college student-athletes, as those who have received access to higher education through sports, to, in turn, use sports to help provide disadvantaged youth in rural parts of developing countries abroad with access to higher education.

The program was designed two years ago by a former student-athlete from Duke, and after a pilot run in 2008, it was back in full force this past summer with the Hokies in tow.

Chidester is an avid traveler and had already been to places like Europe, the Caribbean, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico and Venezuela, so the there were no reservations about being far from home after she found out about the program from Owens.

“Whenever I see an opportunity for travel, I jump on it,” she said. “That’s actually what first caught my eye about this trip.”

So three flights, one long drive into the Vietnamese countryside and over 24 hours of traveling later, Chidester and nine other student-athletes from Tech, Duke and UNC were firmly entrenched in an environment where academics and athletics rarely make it into a child’s post-high school years. And that’s exactly what she and her fellow travelers were there trying to change.

“They don’t have formal sports training over there, so it’s really neat for them,” Chidester explained. “Basically, we’re over there promoting higher education. We’re role models for them. We represent higher education and we are pushing for them to pursue it. It’s a very rural area and it’s very common for kids to just stop going to school during high school to work and help out their parents.”

Robin Chidester, seen here in some photos she provided from her trip to Vietnam, spent three weeks over the summer teaching underprivileged children the basics of athletics and academics.

Chidester, who was paired with a fencer from UNC and two students from Vietnam’s Can Tho University (to help with the language barrier), was responsible for mentoring a group of 15-20 rising ninth-graders twice a day on things such as team-building and leadership. Throughout each day, different groups of children would rotate through different stations, where they learned the basics of sports like soccer, tennis, volleyball and basketball. Naturally, Chidester taught them soccer, which she said the children, especially the boys, adapted to the easiest.

A communications major, the Virginia Beach, Va., native also taught the children English, which, for obvious reasons, was a lot tougher for them to pick up on than math.

“It was really difficult at first because I’d catch myself using big words,” Chidester said. “You really have to simplify things. They know the grammar, but they don’t have the vocabulary because they don’t start actually speaking it until late in high school.”

As she begins her final year in college, Chidester is also working toward minors in German and Spanish, and said she has thought about traveling to other countries in the future to teach English and coach soccer. Her experience in Vietnam strengthened that notion, and it also left her well equipped to deal with her new role as one of the soccer team’s captains.

“I definitely learned a lot of things about patience, not getting frustrated with others, and different ways to communicate,” she said.

All things which, coincidentally, Virginia Tech head coach Kelly Cagle desires out of her soccer team one season after it completed a stunning run to the title game of the ACC tournament and earned just the second NCAA Tournament bid in program history.

“I think leadership, communication and how smoothly things are run … it almost overpowers any talent that you may or may not have,” the seventh-year head coach said. “We’re really going to be relying on some of the culture we’ve created. We want our leaders to get us through everything day by day and to help us enjoy one another and enjoy the process. I think the talent that we have is the best that we’ve returned since I’ve been here, but if we can create an smooth environment like that, then we’ll be in even better shape.”

That thought rang true last season, when despite four surgeries in the season’s first few weeks – including a season-ending injury to leading scorer Marika Gray – the Hokies managed to string together a 10-7-2 regular season record and qualify for the ACC tournament for just the second time.

“Our leadership was some of the best it’s ever been last year,” Cagle said. “If you would have told me how well the season was going to end up after what we were handed in our first three weeks, I never would have believed it. But I think it was a testament to how broad our foundation was and that we weren’t reliant upon one or two players. The girls really started to pick up the slack for each other.”

After earning the seventh seed in the conference tournament, the Hokies improbably marched to the title game after outlasting two of the top teams in the nation – No. 5 Florida State and No. 12 Virginia – in penalty kick shootouts after ties through double overtime. Though the Hokies lost to fourth-ranked UNC in the title game, they had done enough to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they bowed out in the first round to No. 22 BYU.

“It was a tough draw,” Cagle said of the trip to Provo, Utah, where the BYU match was played. “But it was a great learning experience and a great accomplishment. We’ve got to get back there again and do our best to get past that first game.”

“We were so excited to make it [to the tournament], but I think we need to learn to act like we’ve been there before,” Chidester added. “Yeah, it’s the NCAA Tournament, but that’s what we’ve been expecting the whole time. We play the top teams in the nation every season, so we need to remember that the next time we make it. That should give us confidence in itself.”

If the Hokies are seeking confidence, they need look no further than the front attacking line on which Chidester plays. Not only does it possess the leadership that Cagle raves about – senior forwards Chidester, Emily Jukich and Julian Johnson will serve as the three team captains this year – but it also contains a grab bag of talents that should serve the offense well.

It all begins with Jukich, who took over Tech’s all-time lead in goals scored (25) with a whopping 15 tallies last season, an effort that earned her second team all-conference honors.

“She’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever been around in front of the goal,” Cagle said. “She truly has a gift and a knack for finding the goal, but if we expect her to score 15 goals again, that would be unfair to her. We need to put her in a position where she can just rely on her God-given talents.”

Forward Marika Gray returns to contribute to the Hokies' offensive attack this year after missing much of last season with a knee injury.

Aiding in the goal scoring will be Gray, who led the team with eight scores as a freshman in 2007 before missing all but eight games last year with an ACL tear in her knee. She netted four goals in those eight games to prove that her rookie output wasn’t a fluke, but as with any injury, she’s going to need some time to feel her way back into things.

Feeding the ball to Jukich and Gray will be Johnson, who, despite her own share of injuries throughout her career, is Tech’s all-time leader in assists with 24.

Then there is Chidester. She hasn’t put up numbers like the other three have, but Cagle said she is “dynamic with the ball” and “scares people on the dribble like nobody in the conference.”

“There are different attributes that each one of us brings to the table,” Chidester said of her attack mates. “It would be good if we could work on combining and working off of each other’s strengths to hopefully spread out the scoring a little more.”

As good as Tech’s offense can potentially be, it was the defense that Cagle feels got the job done last year, something that will need to remain constant.

“A lot of our games last year were very close,” she said. “We kept ourselves in the game by protecting our goal, and it will need to be the same this year. As long as we do that, I think we’ve got the attacking talent to make a difference in any game we play.”

Center back Kim Hickey anchored the defense as a senior last year and will need to be replaced, but Cagle feels like there are enough returning defenders available (Kelly Lynch, Brittany Popko, Megan Strawther, Kylie Stankovics and Kristi Sieber) to fill the gap. No matter who steps up on the back line, it needs to happen quickly because neither of Tech’s two goalkeepers from last year return, and it will be up to Rebekah Brook, a newcomer from New Zealand, to take over the duties in net.

If all goes according to plan and the Hokies fill those holes, they should be staring down their second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in program history, something that has been officially stated as the goal for this season.

“We’re going to challenge ourselves to be the first team in program history to go the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons,” Cagle said. “We’ve done it twice in six years, but now we want to do it twice in a row.”

“We want to keep raising the bar higher,” Chidester added. “Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve gotten a little better, but sometimes the hardest thing to do is to come off of a successful season because you’ve gotten too comfortable. I don’t want us to look back at last year and think it was easy. We put in a lot of work last year, and if we think it’s going be any less work, then we’re delusional.”

If the Hokies put in that work and take the next step forward, then the chances are good that Chidester will get to do a little more traveling this fall as Tech makes its way through the NCAA Tournament bracket. Here’s hoping she comes across a better dinner menu than she did in Vietnam.