By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Amy Pseja arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1994 fully understanding both the responsibility and the opportunity that lay before her.
A former letterwinner at Radford University in Virginia, Pseja followed her coach, Don Staley, to the University of Alabama to help him chart the course of the fledgling women’s soccer program.
“I spent my freshman year with Coach Staley at Radford University,” Pseja said by phone Sunday. “We were coming off a successful season at Radford, but we had seven graduating seniors and Coach Staley decided to leave. At the time, he was coaching both the men’s and women’s soccer teams. I felt that the uncertainty of Radford soccer was a little too much for me to take. I got a call from Coach Staley, he said he was down in Alabama about to start a program and was I interested? I followed him to Alabama and that was an opportunity that opened up because of Title IX.”
The Alabama soccer program began in the fall of 1994, one year subsequent to the Southeastern Conference adding women’s soccer as its 19th sponsored sport. The Crimson Tide joined Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt as the five soccer programs of the SEC that season.
“When you put together a program, you want to have a great goalkeeper,” Staley said. “I lucked out that I had recruited one in her to Radford. She was one of several players who came down to Alabama with me, but she was one of the biggest pieces to putting the program together.”
According to Pseja, the landscape of women’s soccer in the SEC looked much different at the time of its inception.
“It was bare bones,” Pseja said. “We didn’t even have a soccer field back then. They were in the middle of making the field when we had our first season. We had to play on the rec fields.”
Still, despite soccer being in its infancy at Alabama and in the SEC, Pseja was impressed with the commitment the Crimson Tide soccer program, and the pride that each athlete took in the name on the front of her jersey.
“I came from a very small conference [Big South] being at Radford and, going into the SEC, it was magical,” Pseja said. “We would go anywhere and we would be the University of Alabama. One of the things Coach Staley said to us in the locker room before our game was that we aren’t Alabama-Tuscaloosa, we are THE University of Alabama and, with that, came so much pride going through the first couple of years and having to establish a soccer tradition with such rich Alabama history.”
Pseja and her teammates may have been establishing the tradition of Alabama soccer during their first few years in Tuscaloosa, but it was the squad’s camaraderie that helped the Crimson Tide players feel their way through a new experience.
“At first, it was really the team unity that made it feel like a soccer program,” Pseja said. “My first year that I was there, I remember that every single soccer player lived on campus in Parham Hall. We were floormates with the gymnastics team at the time. When you’re going into college and a new atmosphere, having your teammates around you really helps you develop a teamwork and a friendship that is long-lasting.”
It wasn’t just her relationship with her teammates that helped Pseja, a native of the Garden State, adjust to her new environment. It was also the bond she had with her coach.
“He was a very hard coach when he needed to be, but he was also very sensitive when he needed to be,” Pseja said. “His success was being able to gauge a player. Not everyone responds to yelling in your ear or being pulled aside to a comforting shoulder. He knew which players needed to have a certain type of coaching in order to make them great. For me, he was very hard. He was a goalkeeper himself and he knew what it took. I remember when the other players left the field and hit the showers, he and I were always working another 30 minutes. He was also a sense of a father figure for me while I was away from home; both my parents took great comfort in that.”
The respect was mutual.
“You’re in a close game and it’s 0-0 and you have somebody take a shot that you expect to go in but, out of nowhere, there she is,” Staley said. “I don’t know how she got those saves because she wasn’t the biggest goalkeeper. The kid had springs. When we were down, we knew that we weren’t going to give up a lot of goals and she was somebody who was very, very stable in the back and could win us games. It’s almost like in baseball, you have that ace closer, that’s Pseja.”
It wasn’t always an easy experience, however.
Staley was demanding of his teams and athletes, and his training sessions reflected that.
“I remember doing suicides in the Coleman Coliseum parking lot in mid-August and it was sweltering,” Pseja said. “We all went through some really tough preseasons with Coach Staley; he was known for that at Radford and then later Alabama. Everybody was going through the process of change and universities were trying to find places for their soccer programs and soccer fields.”
Staley was tough, as was Pseja. In fact, that was just one of many ways in which the coach and pupil were a lot alike.
“She was just tough, fearless,” Staley said. “She reminded me of myself. She wasn’t the tallest goalkeeper, nor was I. But she was good with her reflexes and commanding the box. She was tough as nails and ran a tight ship.”
Just how strong was Pseja?
She never wanted to miss a match, that’s for sure.
“She had an injury one time; it was a big game and we were going to play Vanderbilt which, at the time, Vanderbilt was the best of the best,” Staley said. “We had goalkeeper tryouts before and during warm-ups before the game because Amy wasn’t able to play. We were up there at Vanderbilt trying to decide who was going to play goalkeeper. If this gives you any indication of her character and toughness, she walks up to me and she had a fax from her mom and dad. She’s waving this piece of paper telling me that her parents were giving her permission to play. The doctors and trainers said she had to sit that one out. I don’t know how she got that fax, but that’s just the kind of kid she was.”
Though she may have been among the first to play soccer at Alabama, the test of time has proven her to be one of the best to ever go through the Crimson Tide program.
Pseja still ranks second all-time in Alabama history with 301 career saves and, to this day, holds the school record in career victories with 30. She averaged 5.90 saves per game for her career and holds the Alabama school record for saves in a single game at 24.
“Fourteen years later, that last year I coached, I felt like you could put a player like Amy into the mix and she would still be the best player in the league,” Staley said. “She was a Big South first-team all-conference selection, had two SEC first-team all-conference awards and one second-team. She was nothing but a winner. Without question, if she had started her first year at Alabama, she would have been first or second-team all-conference.”
Pseja’s accomplishments transcended her own resume and helped to build a competitive culture within the Alabama soccer program.
“I think what happened for us was the confidence level she gave us back in the back, whether it was the dramatic saves in a clutch situation or a call on defense,” Staley said. “Early in the preseason, she told them, this is my house and this is my ball, and I’m letting you guys use it. That’s the kind of kid she was. They loved her because they knew what they had to do. She called the shots for our team.”
Away from the field, Pseja transitioned into a laid-back teammate, whose humor was equally beneficial to keeping everyone calm and the mood positive.
“As a person, Amy was that player that kept everybody loose,” Staley said. “She had practical jokes, a quick wit and would pull practical jokes on her coach. She was slick and kept everything light-hearted.”
Pseja graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders and also earned her master’s degree from the Capstone. She has since pursued a career as a speech language pathologist.
“I graduated the university and decided to go back home,” Pseja said. “I played two or three years on the semipro New Jersey Lady Stallions team and then I went back to Alabama to get my graduate degree. Right now, I am a speech language pathologist in Waldwick, N.J.”
For Pseja, it has proven to be the perfect career.
“It combines the love of people that I have with communications and science,” she said. “I’m able to treat people that have had strokes or are dealing with Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease, those are the target patients that I work with.”
The lessons that she learned on the soccer field have proven invaluable to Pseja over the course of her career.
“I recently got a promotion to be a director of a rehabilitation program in a skilled nursing facility,” Pseja said. “Being a student-athlete helped me learn how to handle pressure and learn time management. Being able to have good time management, along with teamwork, is essential to my success today as it was back then. I hope to foster that with the therapists that I supervise.”
As one of the trailblazers of SEC soccer, Pseja said she was not surprised at how quickly the teams in the SEC ascended to among the nation’s elite following the sponsorship of the sport in 1993.
“The universities that make up the SEC make their athletes feel like they are very important and when they do something, they do it right,” Pseja said. “When they establish a program, they get the people that need to be the coaches and players. There are a lot of great athletes down south that were able to stay home and go to some of the SEC universities. One of the reasons the SEC was able to be successful was because of all the success of those high school programs in the south.”
Pseja was the cornerstone of helping to build the Alabama program and someone whom Staley felt was one of the best on a list of decorated players that he coached over his career that spanned a quarter of a century.
“I was lucky enough to coach players who played in World Cups and on national teams,” Staley said. “I had players who won MLS scoring titles and NCAA Division I scoring titles. I’ve had my share of quality players over my 25-year career. People ask me who was the best player I’ve ever coached and it is Dante Washington, who was an MLS all-star and still holds all the records. Amy is right there in that small handful of top-level players that I’ve ever coached. If I were starting a program from scratch, and doing it all over again, she would definitely be on the list of players I want to start a program with."