Editor's note: Longtime Baton Rouge sportswriter, author and television host Lee Feinswog takes his unique approach to sports to dig deeper into LSU Athletics. Look for these features online and in official athletics department publications throughout the 2014-15 season.
In sports, as in life, so often it's more about who you know than who you are. In the case of LSU junior soccer player Natalia Gomez-Junco, she knew another Mexican who was playing for the Tigers. Which is why she's at LSU.
Now that the season is starting, after sitting out all of last year after transferring from Memphis, there can't possibly be anyone more ready to get after it than Gomez-Junco, the midfielder who hopes to become that “who you are person” for LSU.
The team's lone senior, midfielder Alex Arlitt, is excited to get Gomez-Junco in an LSU uniform after practicing with her the past year and playing with her on a club team this past summer in Florida.
“The main reason I love playing with her is she just works her tail off,” Arlitt said matter-of-factly.
“I know exactly what I'm going to get with her every time I step on the field. If she loses a ball she's going to chase it down. It's easy to play with someone like that when you know that they're going to do absolutely everything they can to win the game.”
Arlitt smiled and nodded.
“In the end that's what it's all about and that's the kind of person I want as my teammate.”
Gomez-Junco, who scored 10 goals in her two seasons at Memphis, was on LSU's radar the first time around but never visited. That she's at LSU now ties in with 10th-year LSU coach Brian Lee's recent penchant for international recruiting.
LSU's roster this season includes aforementioned other Mexican, junior Fernanda Pina, with whom Gomez-Junco played on youth national teams; three players from Canada (sophomore Summer Clarke, sophomore Emma Fletcher and freshman Jordane Carvery); two from New Zealand (sophomore Megan Lee and freshman Lily Afeld); and English freshman Ella Williams.
“We'll go anywhere there's players,” Lee said with a smile.
What's more, LSU's roster also includes players from Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Florida, California, South Carolina and Arizona.
“Now we have Mexicans, Canadians, people from all these different countries. I've definitely gotten to taste a lot of different foods,” Arlitt said with a smile. “I've broadened my sense of humor in some different languages. It's been really learning how everyone is different, not just off the field but on the field, too.”
The Canadians, she said, are fast, while the Mexicans are technical. Which is exactly how Gomez-Junco answers questions as well, obviously considering both her languages and the response.
“it's always hard as an international player to get seen by the American schools,” said the 5-foot-3 21-year-old, who pronounces the second half of her last name “hoonca.”
“So when I started the recruiting process I was already a senior in high school in January. That was pretty late. I visited Memphis, I liked it, and decided I wanted to go there.”
But eventually she decided it wasn't the right place for her. All along she'd kept up with Pina.
“Through her it was easy to contact Brian and the staff. I loved the idea from day one and I loved LSU from the beginning,” said Gomez-Junco, who was born in Mexico City but grew up in the northeast city of Monterrey.
“We were excited,” Lee admitted. “The transfers are always different situations and you're looking for red flags and making sure there's nothing a bit off about it. After you meet Natalia you see that she's such a good, wholesome, hard-working person that it made the decision easy for us. We've really been blessed. We're just happy she's going to play some games for us. It's been with us a long time now without playing.”
Gomez-Junco made the Conference USA all-freshman team and played in every game and scored eight goals for a Memphis team that went 22-1-1. Her sophomore year wasn't nearly as productive, when she scored two goals.
“I think she'll make a huge impact,” Lee said. “She's real technical. She's great on free kicks, very good on corners, she's a winner, a hard worker, she's a grinder, tough defensively, she's very good at setting tempo for the team. If we want to play fast or we want to slow it down she's the player who dictates that. And her leadership is second to none.”
Gomez-Junco said she is extremely “passionate” on the soccer field.
“Over-passionate sometimes,” she said with a smile. “I love winning and I hate losing. I just do everything I can to win.”
Gomez-Junco can kick equally well with both feet, can kick long balls with accuracy and handles the ball extremely well. That combined with her international experience has to help the Tigers this season as they try to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 when LSU went four times in five years.
She went to schools where she spoke English — “School English which is not American English” — and said it's way better after three years in this country. Not that she doesn't speak a lot of Spanish.
“Sometimes she'll wake up in the morning and she'll start talking in Spanish to me,” Arlitt says with a laugh, “and I'll be like ‘Dude, I can't understand you.' And she goes, ‘Too early for English.' “
Indeed. Lee noticed that on the field Gomez-Junco speaks Spanish to Pina and English to the rest of her teammates.
No matter the language, a goal is a goal. So when LSU opened its season against Troy on Friday night, she was ready.
“I'm beyond excited,” Gomez-Junco said a few days earlier. “In the spring, I had a little taste of what to expect and in my first game I was all over the place, because I was so excited and I had so much adrenaline. That helped me to put that behind me and focus and play composed and play the best I can.”
All of which should add up to a big season for LSU.
“We are going to be good,” she said, actually making a fist and punching her other hand. “We have a very talented team. Very diverse, definitely. We have international players, a good bunch of internationals that gives a good edge to the team with different perspectives. And we have very experienced players, Alex, Heather (Magee, a junior midfielder), we have a very good freshman class.
“I believe we will blend very well and you put all those abilities together and we have a very good positive attitude right now and we'll try to keep that going, play every game as hard as we can and all that can take us very far."