By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Imagine having two careers, each on different continents – a nearly 30-hour flight with at least three connections between the two, with overlapping schedules.
While that scenario may sound far-fetched, it is Hannah Wilkinson’s reality.
Wilkinson, a native of Whangarei, New Zealand, is a junior student-athlete on the University of Tennessee soccer team and also is a member of the New Zealand National Team. Not to mention the rigors of being a student at a top-caliber institution.
“It’s a tricky one,” Wilkinson said of her balancing act. “It’s all worth it. I have had to be really proactive with my professors here in letting them know when I’m gone for tours. They’ve understood really well and made it easy. Every spare moment I am working on my studies and I have to have an organized schedule.”
Tennessee’s second-year head coach Brian Pensky has been supportive of Wilkinson’s desire to play both collegiately and with her national team, and understands the challenges that such a dual role can pose.
“It’s a program philosophy of supporting kids and the opportunities that they may have with their national teams,” Pensky said. “We don’t like missing players, but that’s the price of having good players. It’s tough – it’s like having two jobs because you invest so much in each team. Each team has a different dynamic and set of expectations. Her commitment to both teams and situations is outstanding.”
Wilkinson’s older brother, Tom, was the first in the family to begin playing soccer. Wilkinson and her younger brother, Samuel, followed. Their father, Simon, began coaching their teams and, before long, it was a family affair in a country that hasn’t always been focused on the sport.
“It’s getting a lot bigger now that we’re doing better as a national team,” Wilkinson said of soccer in New Zealand. “Men’s soccer is getting pretty big, but it’s still mainly rugby and cricket. Soccer is on the rise.”
Wilkinson has been a big part of the ascension of soccer in her home country. After making her international senior debut in February 2010, Wilkinson helped New Zealand reach an historical first in the 2011 FIFA World Cup.
Against Mexico, Wilkinson came off the bench vs. Mexico and scored the equalizer in the 94th minute. Wilkinson’s goal and the subsequent tie gave New Zealand its first-ever point in World Cup competition.
“That was probably something I will never forget,” Wilkinson said. “That was my first senior World Cup for the national team and I was really, really happy I could do that for my team. It’s something to be proud of. It’s an honor to play for my country, especially New Zealand because I’m very passionate about where I’m from.”
Pensky makes sure to remind Wilkinson that, no matter what happens in her soccer career moving forward, her accomplishment in the 2011 World Cup is a unique feat that will forever be remembered.
“Hannah’s accomplishment of scoring that goal in the World Cup against Mexico that gave New Zealand their first-ever point in a World Cup is a statistic she can put in her pocket and keep forever,” he said.
Having a player with Wilkinson’s international resume is a valuable asset to Tennessee’s team, and gives her teammates a resource with a wealth of experience on which to lean.
“Having a player like Hannah garners instant respect from the players,” Pensky said. “It’s unique. I can’t think of any other college kid in a similar situation who has the same depth of full national-team experience that Hannah Wilkinson has. When you have a player with that vast experience, they are used to playing in big games in front of big crowds.”
Earlier this season, Wilkinson missed Tennessee’s opening match of Southeastern Conference play to travel to Saviese, Switzerland, with the New Zealand National Team to participate in the Valais Women’s Cup.
Wilkinson connected on the game-winning goal in her team’s 4-0 win against China to give her team the title. It was her third goal for New Zealand this year.
“She was very worried about leaving in mid-September to go to Switzerland because she questioned if she was neglecting her Tennessee teammates,” Pensky said. “We made it clear to her that she was doing the right thing and what any other player would do. She played 60 minutes in Switzerland against China on Wednesday, September 25th, then she traveled on Thursday straight to Baton Rouge to give us 84 minutes in a 1-1 tie with LSU on Friday, the 27th.”
The transition wasn’t always as seemless for Wilkinson.
After spending one year at Auckland University of Technology, she was set to join the Lady Vols for the 2012 campaign. But it wasn’t as if she would have the opportunity to attend new-student orientation.
For Wilkinson, the summer of 2012 consisted of representing New Zealand in the Olympic Games in London, which culminated with a quarterfinal appearance. She then traveled directly to Japan for the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. It was only after those experiences that Wilkinson packed up and headed to a new country to play for Tennessee – joining the team well into the season.
“Hannah was playing catch-up in terms of academics and our team and, more importantly, relationships,” Pensky said. “Hannah loves connecting with people and making friendships. Last year, she was with the national team and had to say goodbye to New Zealand and hello to Tennessee. It was ‘Here are your classes, you’re three weeks into them and your team is six games into the season.’ She had no friends and no relationships.
“I think some of her best accomplishments were here a year ago, being honored as an All-American and scoring eight very big goals for us in her first semester here,” Pensky continued. “One year later, she has developed strong relationships here, which is helping her happiness and her level of play.”
Even the cultural norms weren’t the easiest for Wilkinson to adjust to upon arrival in Knoxville.
“Driving on the other side of the road was very confusing for me,” Wilkinson said with a laugh. When I’d be hopping in someone’s car for a ride, I’d go to the driver’s door and get confused about where the steering wheel was. When I was crossing the street, I’d look the wrong way for cars to be coming.”
Now more than a year into her arrival in the United States, Wilkinson is comfortable with her surroundings, which involve constant movement and activity and, yes, many trips across the ocean.
“I think coming here and living in the U.S. and a completely different culture has been good,” she said. “When I first got over here, I was very homesick because things were very different. But it has helped me a lot and helped me see the world.”
Wilkinson, who has scored five goals for the Lady Vols this season and ranks eighth in the SEC in shots in 2013, has found her collegiate experience to have greatly enhanced her international game.
“College soccer has really helped me with my competitiveness,” Wilkinson said. “I think it has given me a lot of confidence playing with these girls who are really supportive in the community that we have over here. I love playing here and I think it is bringing out the best in me.”
Pensky agrees that the college experience is a beneficial one for any international player, saying it’s both the training opportunities and what he calls “total-person development” that enhances the student-athlete.
“What you get at the college level is day-in and day-out training and, in some ways, an 18-22-year-old residency program,” Pensky said. “Between the fall and spring seasons, you’re going to play 30 games in a controlled, organized environment, plus about 100 training opportunities. Part of being good is learning how to manage yourself, and learning how to deal with good times and bad times.”
As far as being a talented soccer player, Pensky believes Wilkinson is one of the best he has seen.
“She is every bit of 5-11 with broad shoulders and is fast and powerful,” he said. “She can hit a ball as well as any female soccer player I’ve ever seen. She’s a bit like a train: once a train gets going, nothing is going to stop that train. It’s that speed and power that literally and figuratively separate her from others.”
Wilkinson has goals of playing soccer long after her collegiate days are done and hopes to help take her sport to the next level in her home country.
“Our goal is to get a medal in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil,” Wilkinson said. “It’s something that we’re working towards. We’ve got a plan implemented with our individual skills to develop our own style of soccer for New Zealand. It’s really exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
Wilkinson has one year of eligibility remaining at Tennessee following the conclusion of the 2013 campaign, and she has high aspirations for what the Lady Vols can accomplish during that time.
“I would love to have an SEC Championship under our belts,” Wilkinson said. “We absolutely have the potential to do that. I would also love to make an appearance in the NCAA Final Four. I am really looking forward to trying to do those things.”
Wilkinson has something of an affinity for striking when the stakes are the highest and the clock is running out. In addition to her international successes, she has six game-winning goals out of 13 in her time at Tennessee.
Her ability to master the moment on the soccer field is simply characteristic of her approach to life.
“Big players make big plays in big moments,” Pensky said. “Hannah Wilkinson is certainly a player who makes big plays in big moments.”