She may be listed as a freshman on the Mattituck High School girls soccer roster, but Nikki Zurawski plays beyond her years.
She is no nervous debutante or first-year player trying to impress her coach. She did that last year in the Town of Brookhaven Summer Soccer League.
This year, the 14-year-old Zurawski is one of the girls.
Well, she has had some help. Mattituck Coach Ed Barbante promoted Zurawski to the varsity as an eighth grader. And it certainly did not hurt that she played with a boys team, which helped make her a much more physical player. Add Zurawski’s natural ability and speed and you’ve got a promising soccer player.
“She’s a dynamite player,” Barbante said.
A nice compliment for a freshman.
“She was just way better than the other junior high kids,” he said. “She was dominant in junior high. She is very fast, as you could tell. One of our needs was we needed speed up top. She was able to fulfill that need with speed.”
Zurawski impressed Barbante when she performed for the Mattituck junior varsity team in last year’s summer league. “She was just motoring past people on the JVs last year,” he said.
Barbante brought her to the Tuckers’ preseason training camp. “She was one of the better players out there,” he said. “For me, it was a no-brainer to have her on the varsity last year. She stepped in and did a tremendous job.”
Zurawski received a great education as a player last year, learning the finer points of the game from upperclassmen.
“There were so many role models on the team last year — 13 seniors,” she said. “It was like every single person taught me something new. I learned new skills. My foot skills improved so much last year because everybody gave me different tips. So every time I got a tip I would just take it and I would practice it. It made me such a better player.”
So, there were no beginner’s jitters for Zurawski?
“Not really,” she said. “Everybody was letting me know that I’m supposed to be here, that I’m here for a reason. I started last year as a forward. It was nervous going into county finals because it was my first experience. But afterward, I grew as a player. I am not nervous anymore.”
She started playing soccer at the age of 6, learning the game from her older brother, Travis, three years her senior. She also practiced with his team.
“I got touches when I could,” she said.
When she isn’t performing for Mattituck, Zurawski plays with Brentwood United, a Long Island Junior Soccer League team that performs in the Northeast Region I League in the Girls Under-14 Division that played against teams from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York. Brentwood also has won a State Cup in the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association competition.
Zurawski gained her physical toughness when she played with the Mattituck Fire when she was 9 and 10 years old. The team has since split into two, but the lessons Zurawski learned lived on.
“It made me a physical player,” she said. “When I got up to the girls league, they were really scared to tackle hard. Since I was so used to it with the boys, it definitely made me a physical player.”
And a versatile one as well. During Mattituck’s 1-0 loss to Sachem East in the Brookhaven Summer League at Diamond in the Pines in Coram on Tuesday night, Zurawski played in central midfield. She is a natural central defender, where she played against Centre Moriches in the Suffolk County Class B final last year.
“She did one heck of a job,” Barbante said. “She shut down a very powerful Center Moriches team. She’s very good at playing that position.”
Playing in the summer league has been vital for the Tuckers, who lost 13 players to graduation.
“It’s hard to come together as a team because it’s all new players,” Zurawski said while holding her 19-month-old brother, Sean. “Over this summer we have bonded. I learned how quickly you can bond if you get along. If you get down on each other, you do bond. You become a family. You do fight, but you get over it, you make up.”
Tuesday night’s game must have been a huge bonding experience because the Tuckers had only nine players show up. They played about half the game with eight players because Melissa Siegfried suffered an ankle injury.
“You definitely get frustrated,” Zurawski said. “A lot of times my frustration makes me play harder. You need to work harder, But it makes me better being frustrated. You get mad. You run after the ball faster, tackle harder, be more aggressive. You step up to the plate when you need to.”
Barbante understood the feelings.
“It’s frustrating for them, especially on a hot day like this,” he said. “It’s hard to beat a team 8 v 11 on a normal cool day. Throw in the heat now, 90 degrees. You’ve got those adverse conditions against you. … I don’t blame them because it’s tough. What I hope for is that I get out of the game with no injuries.”
After the game Barbante reminded his players that this was the summer league, not the regular school season.
“I told them: ‘This is not the season. You’re here to try to learn, learn each other’s styles,’ ” he said. “After graduating 13 seniors, we have a lot of new faces on the team that we have to get to know and play, learn the style and get some consistency. As a coach, I would like to see everybody here, all 20 players. In reality, it’s not going to happen. It’s been like this the five years I’ve been doing it.”
There are summer camps, vacations and job and other personal commitments.
“They’ve got things going on,” Barbante said. “Mattituck being such a small district, you’re pulling from the same kids who are playing basketball, softball, other things going on. They’ve got jobs. It’s not easy. … I’m hoping for a good showing on Thursday and try to steal a win there.”
Barbante was referring to Mattituck’s vital game against first-place Sayville (7-1-1, 15 points) at the Patchogue-Medford Youth Soccer Field in Medford. The loss left Mattituck (2-4-2, six points) in seventh place, with two games remaining until the playoffs. The top eight teams qualify. Teams are awarded two points, not three, for a win, and one for a tie.
“We have to get at least two or three points to get into the playoffs,” Barbante said. “I’m hoping to get a win and a tie, a tie against Sayville. Sayville is the No. 1 team. They’re just mowing through people like crazy.”