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September 12, 2011

Offensive minded

By: Marc Mullen

Kelly Conheeney has been scoring goals at a rapid pace since arriving at Tech and is on the verge of breaking many of the school’s career marks

Kelly Conheeney

It took Kelly Conheeney all of eight minutes to welcome the collegiate world to her talents. In Virginia Tech’s first game of the 2009 season, she took a Kelsey Mitchell cross and put it into the back of the net at the 8:01 mark of the contest against High Point, a game the Hokies would win 2-0.

The tally marked the fastest goal to start a season since 2000 when Victoria Sarfo-Kantanka scored just 1:28 into a game at Charlotte on Aug. 25 and the quickest goal by a freshman to start a career since 1999 when Wendy Kotwas tallied a goal four minutes in at Liberty on Sept. 1.

Conheeney didn’t stop there, finishing her rookie campaign with nine goals – tied for the sixth most in a single season at Tech – and that included four game-winning goals. Two of those game winners came at the back end of the season, one in her first ACC Tournament contest against Wake Forest and the other in the NCAA second-round victory at Dayton which advanced the Hokies into the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

“I went into my freshman season with the mindset that I am going to make an impact on this team, I am going to make a difference, and I’m not just going to be a player that they [the coaches] forget about,” Conheeney said. “The first goal I scored in the first game, I knew that I was scoring. I was so pumped, and with the whole atmosphere and having trained all summer, I just knew.

“Ever since I committed to Virginia Tech, I had in the back of my head that I wanted to really be a part of the team and make a difference. I’m not going to say it was easy. It’s definitely hard, but playing a sport that you love at an amazing school is what I always wanted to do, so I couldn’t imagine doing anything different.”

The 2011 squad is off to a great start in hopes of making it back to its fourth straight NCAA appearance, as the Hokies have jumped out to a 6-0 start for only the second time in school history – the 1994 team won six in a row before its first loss of the year.

It isn’t unexpected, but with the players lost – top goal scorers in Jennifer Harvey, Kelsey Billups and Marika Gray and center back Kelly Lynch – and a new head coach in Chugger Adair, there was a bit of an uncertainty on how the team would respond.

“When we heard that she [Kelly Cagle] was leaving, we were all in shock. We didn’t even expect it,” Conheeney said. “I had a great relationship with her, but we couldn’t let that affect the team. So once I got done crying, we moved on right away. We knew it was hard, and the transition would be tough, but we have so much faith and trust in Chugger.

“We actually all wrote an email to Sharon (McCloskey, senior associate AD/senior woman administrator), those of us who wanted Chugger, and told her that we wanted him to be our head coach. And I had a really good feeling it was going to happen.

“With Chugger as the head coach, it was just as good. Kelly left a great legacy here, and she left so much and started this program up. Now, it’s Chugger’s time to take over. I think he’s been doing a great job. I have so much respect for him, and he’s been working his butt off. I think we’ve all reacted really well and come together as a team.”

Conheeney is one to talk. She has been working her tail off ever since she was 5 years old, running around with her grandfather in the back yard of their Illinois home.

“To this day, I tell him that he was beating me,” she said. “But I remember him telling me ‘I couldn’t catch you!’ So that was probably the first time I touched a soccer ball.”

From there, the family moved to northern New Jersey, and her dad coached her team, the Maroons, for a little bit. But she remembers that, after a 7-0 loss, the winning team saw something in her, and they wanted her to play for them. Conheeney has taken the sport seriously ever since.

“I started really training intensely, and that’s when I fell in love with it,” she said. “I played in high school, and my first year, we were good, but it was more just a lot of fun. I really just enjoyed the atmosphere and playing with my sister [Megan] for two years. But the winter, spring and summer, it was club season and that was serious.”

It was serious enough for her to help her team win three state championships with the Montclair Aristocrats and a national championship as a member of the N.J. ODP [Olympic Development Program]. She also had the opportunity as a member of the ODP Region I team to travel to Russia and take on several U-19 programs from Ukraine, Poland, Estonia and China.

With her success, the college offers came in, and she and her dad began narrowing down the choices.

“I wasn’t really seeking out any schools. I was waiting for schools to come after me,” Conheeney said. “I remember getting a call from Virginia Tech, and they were really pushing it. So I said ‘Dad, let’s go down. I want to see this school.’

“The moment I got here, I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I saw the place and I saw the facilities and everything that they offered, and it just blew me away. This place was unbelievable. This was the first school I had visited, so I thought ‘Is every school this great?’ So I wanted to keep my options open.

“After the tour, talking to the coaches and meeting the players, I realized this was where I wanted to be. I walked away with a great feeling. I went to see some other schools, and they didn’t really compare. This place was always in the back of my mind, and I pretty much had it set that I was going to Virginia Tech.”

After lighting up the scoreboard as a freshman, Conheeney found herself in a different position and a new role, one that called for her to be more of a distributor. As a sophomore, she still found the back of the net five times – with three game winners – but she also notched 12 assists during the 2010 season, tying Julian Johnson (2006) for the most helpers in a single season at Tech.

“I played outside mid [middle] last year, and I think we were just trying players at different positions and that really worked,” she said. “I’ve always been a versatile player. I can play outside mid, inside mid, forward … and I like playing all those positions, so it wasn’t a big deal at all.

“It was a different position. I had to learn it a little more and watch more film and think a little more because I wasn’t playing where I usually play, but it was okay.

“But I am now playing attacking mid this year. We are actually playing a different formation because we have a lot of versatility in the midfield, too. It’s more of my role when I was a freshman.”

Being back in her more familiar role suits her and the Hokies just fine, as she is already off to a frantic goal-scoring pace. She scored six goals in the first six games – three game winners – and added two assists and was honored after the first week of the season as a Primetime Performer.

Thoughts of her becoming a 20-20 player are not so far-fetched. That’s 20 career goals and 20 career assists, which might not sound like incredible numbers. However, in Blacksburg, just four student-athletes have accomplished it – and they were all males.

Entering its 19th season as a program at Tech, the women’s team has never seen a person accomplish the feat. Marika Gray (2007-10) came the closest with 27 goals and 18 assists.

Conheeney is now on the verge of becoming the first female to post the numbers and has the rest of this year and a senior season to increase it. She could solidify herself as one of the school’s best in the history of the sport if she reaches 30-30. She would become the first athlete – male or female – to reach the milestone at Tech.

“I never thought I wouldn’t play at this level,” she said. “I have trained all my life to play soccer and get better, and this is why I did it.”

At press time, Conheeney was already the all-time leader at the school with 10 game-winning goals and tied for first in multiple-goal games with five. In just 51 games played for the Hokies – all starts – she is already in the top five in career points (57, fourth), goals (20, tied for fifth) and assists (17, tied for third).

She always wanted to make a difference. Right now, she’s doing that and making it look easy. And the Hokies are winning as a result.

After declaring, “I wish I could give you something cool about me. I am cool, though, I swear!” the junior midfielder did reveal some interesting tidbits:

On her outside hobbies – “I’m an artist. I like to draw and paint. I’m better than just saying ‘I like to paint.’ I actually have artwork that I hang in my room, and I just like being creative. I have an artistic mind, and I’d like to get into that more.”

On social media – “I do have a Twitter account, and I like to see what VT Soccer is saying and to keep up with the VT sports. I like to see what my friends are up to. I follow Will Farrell. It’s just cool to see what everyone is doing. I don’t think it’s too personal. Some do.”

On her new cleats (seen on the cover) – “I’ve always liked these shoes. I used to have white and red ones that were the same brand and these are the new versions of them. We all had the choice to take these, but no one liked them. The first time I saw them I was like, ‘Wow, those are bright.’”

On her number 13 – “In high school, I was 9, and then I was 7. I took over my sister’s number. But when I got here, 13 and 21 were the only options, and I thought ‘Why not 13? Take a risk.’ I actually took it thinking of it as a positive number.”

On her wild side – “I love roller coasters. I’ve been on Kingda Ka [the tallest coaster in the world], the roller coaster at Six Flags. I want to go skydiving. I want to do crazy stuff. I just haven’t really had the chance to do them yet.”