WOMEN’S SOCCER

Former Sisters star continues soccer career in Iceland

Goalkeeper Sara Small signs with second-division team Sindri

By Mark Morical, The Bulletin, @MarkMorical

The Small file

Name: Sara Small

From: Bend (Sisters High) Age: 23

College: Wake Forest, Little Rock

Career highlights: High school — led Sisters to two straight Class 4A soccer title games, two-time 4A pole vault champion. College — Twice set UALR single season record for goals-against average (1.02, 0.83), set school career records for GAA and save percentage.

In seventh grade, Sara Small clung to her lifelong dream of becoming a professional soccer player after reading Mia Hamm’s autobiography, even as her right leg was in a cast and her soccer future was in jeopardy.

“I was like, ‘I’m doing this, this is what I want to do,’” Small recalled.

If Small is bullheaded and uncompromising in the pursuit of her dreams, she is no different as a goalkeeper on the soccer field in her relentless effort to prevent goals.

The former goalkeeper and two-time state track and field champion as a pole vaulter for Sisters High recently finished her college career as a keeper for Arkansas-Little Rock. She leaves UALR with the top two single-season save percentages in program history, and her total of 10 wins as a keeper last season is the single-season program record.

“She’s done some things that nobody else has ever done at our program,” said Little Rock coach Adrian Blewitt. “She’s loud, and she’s sometimes brash, and she’s really had an impact in such a positive way.”

Small, 23, recently made her dream a reality by signing a pro contract to play for Sindri, a second-division team in Iceland.

She attracted Sindri’s attention while attending a showcase combine in Florida in early January. She plans to leave for Iceland as soon as her visa paperwork is in order, as the season is set to begin in early April.

Back in Central Oregon for a few days this month before leaving for Iceland, Small said she was surprised to learn not long after the combine that a team from Iceland was interested in signing her. But she knew that Iceland was home to competitive women’s soccer leagues.

“It’s one of the top places to go play women’s soccer,” Small said. “But it wasn’t one of the first places I thought of. I think it’s going to be a really great opportunity. I’ve got my foot in the door now. If I do well on this team, I’ll have a chance to be picked up by one of the top teams (in Iceland), and then from there, that’s a player pool that a lot of other countries, like England, pull from.”

Sindri is based in the small, remote town of Höfn on the southeastern shore of Iceland. Small said her residence is situated between a glacier and the Atlantic Ocean. The club, she said, will pay her a salary and provide her housing, a food stipend, and a part-time job.

The team is made up of mostly Icelandic and American players, said Small, adding that an assistant coach speaks English. Small admits she is a little nervous because she does not know anybody on the team, but she is thrilled with the opportunity to fulfill her dream.

“I’ve always been very independent,” said the athletic, 5-foot-7-inch Small, who is quick with a smile. “I like being out on my own and roughing it, and just trying to figure out life. It’ll be a great experience. I’m getting to play the sport that I love and explore a different country.”

Small was born and raised in Bend. As the only girl in a set of triplets, she said she was toughened by growing up with her two brothers, Robert and Davidson.

“It was hard sometimes because there’s three of us, so I was kind of always the odd man out,” she recalled. “But you always have someone to hang out with. We were pretty rough on each other sometimes. I definitely learned how to hold my own early, and now I still do.”

Though living in Bend, the triplets attended school in Sisters because their mother taught elementary school there and they could all commute together.

By sixth grade, soccer and pole vaulting had become Small’s passions. In seventh grade, though, she was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans in her right knee. Basically, a chunk of bone and cartilage at the bottom of her femur had died, Small explained, perhaps from a birth defect.

After months in a cast, the knee did not heal. At about that time, Small read the autobiography of Hamm, the legendary women’s soccer player who broke numerous records and for nearly two decades was the face of the U.S. national team.

Determined to continue in soccer, Small underwent arthroscopic surgery to have a dissolving screw inserted in the knee.

That held up until her sophomore year at Sisters High, when the sharp pain in her knee returned with a vengeance.

Small said doctors told her they could perform a bone graft to repair her knee, but she would never be able to play sports again. Small ignored the doctors and played her junior year with a cumbersome knee brace, leading Sisters to the Class 4A state soccer championship game and winning her first of two pole vault state titles.

That spring, in 2011, she visited a knee specialist in Lake Oswego who removed the loose bone and told her that she was young enough that the cartilage would fill in naturally.

The procedure worked, as Small was left with a hole in the bottom of her femur and the dull pain of arthritis — but also with the ability to continue playing soccer.

She once again led the Outlaws to the soccer state title game in her senior year and won her second pole vault state championship the following spring.

Wake Forest recruited Small for track and offered her a scholarship. She enrolled there and competed in both soccer and track as a freshman, but she dropped track after that year to focus on soccer.

Frustrated with a lack of playing time after three years at Wake Forest, Small transferred to Little Rock in 2015.

“I came in with this mindset of, I’m here to play and be the best I can be,” Small said of the transfer. “I was blessed with awesome teammates and I was accepted right away. I made some of the best friends that I’ve ever had in my life there.”

Small’s effect on the Trojans was immediate, according to Blewitt, the Little Rock coach.

“She came in and she broke so many records,” he said. “She just symbolized what we needed as a program. She just strengthened our back line and made us more stable as a team. She was really a team leader and motivator for all of the girls. She’s very, very quick off the line and aggressive. She gets to the ball, and that’s what you want at the end of the day.”

Small, a criminal justice major who said she would consider working for the FBI after her soccer career, said it helps that she is pretty fearless as a goalkeeper: “I don’t know how many times I’ve been kicked in the face, but somehow I just don’t care if it happens again.”

As Small prepares to leave Central Oregon for Iceland, she is utterly realistic about her future. Making a living in professional women’s soccer is hard, but she is determined to start out and see where it takes her.

“You have to know going in that you’re not going to be making a lot of money,” Small said. “Not everyone’s Hope Solo. Not everyone’s Alex Morgan. They don’t make their money playing soccer, really. They make it through endorsements. You can support yourself, but you’re going to have to probably have another job as well. You have to really love it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com

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