Saving the best for last

Tucked away inside the Glendale News-Press offices on an early July afternoon, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's Natalie Zeenni, the 2011 News-Press Female Athlete of the Year, seems just a bit uneasy as she sits down to answer questions with a camera focused on her shooting away.

It's not a naturally comfortable experience, mind you, with somebody firing off questions as a photographer clicks away with every shot focused only on you.

But in the three years that I've known Natalie Zeenni, I can't remember ever getting the feeing she was uncomfortable.

No matter how daunting the opposition was that the Tologs were facing, she never seemed out of her game or overmatched. No matter how intense or long the game turned out to be, her legs always seemed to be fresh and her step always seemed to be quick. Indeed, to watch Zeenni play her game and play at her speed at an unrelenting pace was a pleasure.

Whether Sacred Heart won, lost or tied in a nonleague game, Mission League nailbiter or CIF roller coaster, she never seemed daunted by the task of fielding questions from this writer and that reporter and was never anything but 100% candid and honest.

Hence, she would tell you with half a grin that she wasn't exactly what you would call a good practice player. And yet you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who played the sport of soccer as doggedly as she did during a game.

A transfer from Arcadia High before her sophomore year, Zeenni made an immediate impact with the Tologs as an All-CIF, All-Area and All-Mission League defender that was the perfect compliment to an already stifling Sacred Heart defense. With Zeenni as one of the Tologs' top players, Sacred Heart would win its first-ever Mission League title and, as the No. 1 seed in the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs, notch a first-round playoff victory that the Tologs program hadn't tasted in years. A 1-0 loss to the Saugus Centurions — the eventual champions — would only serve as motivation and an integral part in the following season's storyline.

Despite going unbeaten in Mission League play in 2009-10, the Tologs finished second. It hardly held them back in the playoffs, however, as they raced to the quarterfinals to find a familiar foe in Saugus. Sacred Heart fell behind, 2-0, at halftime and the Saugus dominance to that point was far greater than the score. But at halftime, it was Zeenni who gave an impassioned, not-fit-for-print speech that became the catalyst for a stunning comeback in which the Tologs won, 3-2, and moved on to the CIF semifinals for the first time ever. While a heartbreaking loss in penalty kicks to Beckman lay ahead in the semifinals, the Tologs rebounded and won CIF Southern California Division III Regional Championships, with Zeenni playing an instrumental part, as she did much of the season by fluctuating between defender and game-changing midfielder.

But the best was saved for last.

When all was said and done, the likes of Katie Johnson and Breeana Koemans grabbed much of the spotlight with gaudy statistical success on the offensive side of the ball over the last two seasons. But despite an overwhelming cast of talent, Zeenni's game, despite playing the often overlooked position of defender, took plenty of spotlight.

She has grabbed Mission League honors all three of her years, All-CIF and All-Area to boot. In addition to being a two-time All-Area Girls' Soccer Player of the Year, she was also an ESPN Rise All-State selection as a senior.

It was as a senior that Zeenni left an indelible mark upon Sacred Heart and her Tologs' team left its imprint upon area chronicle.

After another Mission League-title run, Zeenni and the Tologs set forth in a quest to conquer CIF Southern Section Division I. With a gauntlet of Orange County powerhouses in front of them, the Tologs knocked to the side all comers in a string of nailbiters that made for an unbelievable season.

With Zeenni leading the way, it was the defense that took center stage in the semifinals and finals, as Sacred Heart defeated reigning champion Esperanza, 1-0, in the semifinals thanks in large part to a clutch sliding stop of a potential own goal by Zeenni.

In the CIF championship, Zeenni once again led a shutout effort and twice again stopped balls along the backline.

When a 1-0 victory for the Tologs against San Clemente in Mission Viejo concluded, Zeenni and Co. celebrated winning the program's first-ever CIF Southern Section title, as the Tologs became the first team in area and San Gabriel Valley history to win a Division I girls' soccer title.

Now bound for the University of New Mexico, Zeenni recently sat down with News-Press Sports Editor Grant Gordon to look back on her distinguished soccer career and ahead to her future.

Grant Gordon: So how have things been going since you graduated from Flintridge Sacred Heart? Are you excited about college? Are you nervous? Excited? Both?

Natalie Zeenni: I'm not really nervous, I'm more excited.

GG: Why New Mexico? Anything in particular?

NZ: No. I liked all of the schools that I visited, but when I was in New Mexico, it was like, 'OK, this is where I should be.'

GG: When did you start playing soccer, how young were you?

NZ: 5 or 6.

GG: How much would you say it's been a part of your life?

NZ: A lot. Well, I started doing club when I was 11.

GG: Did you ever get sick of it and think about what would life be without soccer?

NZ: As I got older.

GG: Obviously you had a great senior season, looking back at winning the CIF Division I championship, how big a highlight was that for you guys?

NZ: It was awesome. I was thinking about it last night, too, out of all the years that we could've won CIF, oh my God, it was my senior year.

GG: How many of those games did you doubt that you could pull it off? Was there ever any doubt or were you guys always confident you could win?

NZ: I didn't think we were gonna make it very far in CIF. And then after we started beating teams like 3-0 in the first couple of rounds, I was like, 'Oh, those OC teams aren't as good as everyone makes them out to be.'

GG: Was a lot of your doubt in Division I because of what happened the year before in Division II? Did you guys look at it like we got to the semis in Division II, how well are we gonna do in Division I or was it just the Orange County thing?

NZ: It was just the Orange County thing, cause I play [club] with a lot of the girls on those teams so [I know] they're pretty outstanding.

GG: How big was it, just knowing that you were the only team left in the semifinals that wasn't from Orange County? Is that something you actually thought about, like it's us against Orange County?

NZ: Not really. Whenever we were playing a team I would figure out which girls I knew or which girls the other [Tologs] knew and be like, 'Oh, they have this many good players.' But I'd forget, … our entire starting lineup was pretty much all really, really strong players, even in club we're all really strong players on our teams. After I figured that out, it was like, 'Oh, they have four really good players and we have seven really good players.' I forgot about the whole OC thing after a while.

GG: Do you think you guys were the type of team that had to set foot on the field and realize how good you guys were against the opposing teams to really be confident or were you always confident even before the games?

NZ: At the beginning of the games we always came out pretty shaky and then as the games went on we progressed. Usually at halftime, we'd figure it out, 'OK these teams aren't as we say they are so we need to stop playing like we're scared and pick it up.' And that's what we usually did.

GG: All three of the teams you played on at Sacred Heart were all very good, but obviously this one will be seen as the best because it won it all. Did you think talent-wise it was the best, did you know at the beginning of the season, this is the team that has the best chance to win it all?

NZ: We always had a strong team, but I think this year we just bonded a lot more. We got through a lot more. You have to be able to play together to win.

GG: Looking back, one thing I think that garnered you a lot of attention was the speech at halftime of the Saugus game your junior year. Did you look at yourself as a leader or were you more just the type that when something needed to be said, you said it, and when you needed to step up, you stepped up?

NZ: [Sacred Heart co-Coaches] Kathy [Desmond] and Frank [Pace], I don't think they liked me for a while, because I wasn't the bossy-type. I liked to goof around more than I liked to be serious, so that's why they were kinda frustrated. But obviously when people were upsetting me, I would say something.

GG: So when you felt something needed to be said, that's when you said it?

NZ: Yeah.

GG: We've talked before that you aren't exactly the biggest practice player, you like to goof around. How different are you mentally from a practice to a game? Are you just a completely different person?

NZ: Not really. Even in warm-ups, I'm not the type of player who will be like, 'OK, everyone quiet, let's all focus.' cause I like to have fun. If I'm not having fun, then I don't play well. When I was younger, my club coach, he would yell at everyone else, but sometimes he wouldn't yell at me because it was just like, 'OK, I've given up on you, I know you're not gonna play well if I make you get serious, cause you're not having fun.'

GG: Is soccer still, for as long as you've been doing it, is it still fun for you?

NZ: Sometimes. Right now is a good break. Yeah [it's still fun].

GG: How much do you think your soccer path changed from you transferring from Arcadia to Sacred Heart before your sophomore year? Do you think it would've been the same if you would've stayed at Arcadia?

NZ: No. That team was horrible. I don't really look at it that way, it's kind of just like, it happened.

GG: But are you thankful that you did make the move?

NZ: Yeah.

GG: Is there anyone you feel you need to thank for making you the soccer player that you are.

NZ: All my coaches. Sharif [Zein], Frank [Pace and Kathy Desmond] and Kristy Walker.

GG: Last question, what will you miss most about Sacred Heart and what are you looking forward to the most in college?

NZ: Just playing with all the girls, cause I've grown up with a lot of them. Even if I hadn't grown up with them, we got pretty close as a team. Even if outside of soccer we didn't really talk, cause in soccer we were like a big family. Most excited for? Kaitlyn [Almeida] and Tera [Trujillo] to come to New Mexico because we've been playing together since we were like 10.

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