Sacred Heart's splendid star

With a season and a first-ever CIF championship appearance on the line, Natalie Zeenni was there.

Once more, with the stakes and the stage at an even higher level in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship, Natalie Zeenni was there — on two occasions in fact — to once again save the day.

Over the span of the last three soccer seasons, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's success has expanded into the program's greatest accomplishments and, inevitably, the area's. And every season, Natalie Zeenni has been there, she's been a constant.

Tireless in her approach on the field, she was a dogged defender able to lead the charge in shutting down many of the nation's best offenses this past season. She's showcased the versatility to be an outstanding midfielder, as well, and when needed most, she's stepped up to be a leader for a Tologs team venturing into the uncharted waters of unprecedented CIF triumph.

A game-changer and a difference-maker no matter where she was on the field, she possessed a flair for the dramatic. Whether it was tracking down a forward on a potential scoring run, pushing the ball up the field to start a Tologs scoring chance or her borderline unbelievable knack for stopping shots on the backline — of which she slid to stop one in the aforementioned semifinal before stopping two shots on the goalline in the championship game — Zeenni's play was a catalyst in the orchestration of the greatest girls' soccer season in area history.

"We all relied on her," says Tologs junior defender Katelyn Almeida. "Everybody counted on her.

"We call her the savior."

And for the second straight season, she was voted the All-Area Girls' Soccer Player of the Year by the sports editors and writers of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.


As a sophomore transfer from Arcadia, Zeenni came to Flintridge Sacred Heart with an already established reputation as a terrific defensive soccer player. But from the moment she stepped on the La Cañada Flintridge campus, her reputation, right along with the Tologs' success, has grown by leaps and bounds.

"For the most part, you know what you're gonna get with Natalie," Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace says. "The knowledge that Natalie was on the field always gave us a leg up on the competition."

Through three years of varsity soccer, Zeenni's statistical line boasts only three goals and six assists. But offensive statistics were hardly the measure of the defensive standout.

Over her three seasons at Sacred Heart, the Tologs compiled a 61-8-9 record that's included the program's only two Mission League titles and the program and area's first and only CIF Southern California Division III Regional Soccer championships title and CIF Southern Section Division I crown.

"That's pretty valuable," Pace says. "She didn't do that on her own, obviously, but she was a pretty integral part of it."

Along the way, Zeenni has been a three-time All-CIF honoree, she's been a two-time Mission League Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-Area honoree — with the last two being as All-Area Player of the Year.

Of course, nothing quite compared to the jubilance of winning the CIF Southern Section Division I title, which the Tologs did as a Zeenni-led defense keyed a 1-0 victory over San Clemente.

"We were pretty nervous," Zeenni recalls, adding that many of the Tologs were familiar with how good the San Clemente players were due to club soccer. "In that second half, we finally woke up.

"It was amazing. It was surreal. We didn't really think we'd make it that far."

But they did and they did so by allowing just two goals in five Division I playoff games, culminating in shutouts against defending champion Esperanza in the semifinals and top-seeded San Clemente in the finals. Though it was clearly a team effort, and Zeenni's standout performances weren't completely defined by them, it's hard to fathom that either victory would have been possible had it not been for Zeenni stopping three shots on exposed nets over the final two games.

"She's in the right place at the right time all the time," Almeida says.

But for the 17-year-old Zeenni, who's played soccer since the age of 6, it's more than just being in the right place at the right time.

"I've done it since I was little," she says of stopping shots on the backline. "Since I was young, I've always made it a point to back up the goalie and be on the backline."

And it's become a trait that's second nature for the talented University of New Mexico-bound defender.

"I would call it instincts," Pace says. "She combines great skill with a very good knowledge of the game and extraordinary instincts. Sometimes you just know where the ball's going. That's what she has the ability to do."

While her ability and talent are abundant, the attribute that is immediately noticeable for most when they first see Zeenni play is her tireless and relentless approach to the game, whether it's tracking down someone on defense or pushing the ball up on offense. It's a trait that's even more remarkable when considering Zeenni, her teammates and coaches will readily admit she's not exactly the most ardent practice player.

"She's super lazy in practice," says Tologs midfielder Tera Trujillo, "but in a game, she just has this adrenaline rush and she just goes and goes and goes.

"She's definitely an impact player."

While not a formula for success for most, Zeenni's efforts come game time have never come into question.

"Most people play like they practice, Natalie is an exception to that rule in that she plays way better than she practices," Pace says. "The thing that makes her a successful player is her work rate and her tireless capacity to maintain that work rate for 80 minutes."

Says Zeenni: "When it comes to the game, I don't know, it's just different. It's kind of just natural to go where I'm needed. … It's natural for me to just run."

Much of the game of soccer seems to be a natural fit for Zeenni.

As a junior, many of her biggest matches came in the postseason when she was moved up to the midfield.

"If Natalie concentrated on playing offense exclusively, I think she would've been one of the top three or four [offensive] players in league," Pace says.

Early in her senior campaign, Zeenni found herself used in the midfield, as well. As the season progressed, however, Zeenni was a constant on defense as the backbone of the backline.

"Our defense isn't the same without her," Almeida says. "She's good anywhere, but I just think defense is the place for her and I think most people would agree with me."

Moreover, it's hard to imagine the Tologs being the same without Zeenni. As a team co-captain over the past two seasons, her worth for Sacred Heart extended past her skills and into the realm of the intangibles.

"She's a leader," Trujillo said. "We rely on Natalie 100%. She's a great person to play with."

Zeenni was far from the norm when it came to leading, however. Indeed, most of the time, she let her play and her actions do the talking, but when she spoke it was for a reason and it her words were heeded.

"She expresses displeasure freely to her teammates," Pace says. "And she also doles out compliments when they should be doled out. I don't think she talks to hear herself talk."

Her words never rang out any louder than, "in the never-to-be-forgotten halftime speech," according to Pace, that took place in 2010 when Sacred Heart trailed reigning CIF champion Saugus, 2-0. The impassioned speech launched a comeback for the storybooks as the Tologs took over en route to a 3-2 quarterfinal win that bestowed upon them a then-unprecedented semifinal berth.

Since then, Zeenni and the Tologs have written far more chapters in what has become a splendid Sacred Heart story. Alas, next season will find the Tologs looking to maintain their newly established spot among the best of the best in high school girls' soccer without one of the program's finest players of all-time.

"We're gonna have to adjust," Trujillo says. "It's gonna be really hard."

But that's next year. For now, Zeenni and the rest of the CIF Southern Section Division I champions still have one unbelievable season to look back upon. And during a season for the ages in which the Flintridge Sacred Heart soccer team turned in the area's finest season, Zeenni once again proved herself to be the area's best.

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