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A successful, yet challenging transition

Freshman forward Evelyne Viens has led USF to a 9-1-1 record with a team-high 11 goals in 2016. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Canada native and USF freshman forward Evelyne Viens has left an indelible mark on the 2016 USF women’s soccer team. 

The stats speak for themselves: a team-leading 11 goals, four multi-goal games — including a hat trick against Jacksonville University — to go along with 3 assists on the season. 

Viens (pronounced Vee-eh) would prefer that the statistics speak for themselves so she doesn’t have to occupy the cameras and microphones after every standout performance, which have come to be routine. 

L’ancienne-Lorette, a sleepy suburb less than half an hour west of the capital of Quebec, gives one an idea of the massive transition Viens has embraced in coming to Tampa to play soccer and earn a degree in accounting. 

The population of L’ancienne-Lorette: 16,745 at last count. Tampa: approximately 353,000. 

The persistently frigid winters in Quebec meant playing and practicing soccer on gym floors for all but three months out of the year during which the grass would finally defrost to provide a fleeting reprieve from the 5-on-5 nature of gym-constrained soccer. 

Early in her time with the Bulls, the stifling humidity and physical conditioning that came along with it had Viens calling home with thoughts of giving up on soccer.

However, she said the biggest challenge in making the journey from L’ancienne-Lorette to the U.S. is not a difficult question. It’s not a question she had to ponder or think about: the language.

“At the beginning (of summer), when I was not speaking, it was so hard because I was not able to say anything (in English),” Viens said. “I love to talk and I love to tell stories at home, and I (realized) that if we are eating together, if we are being together (as a team), I need to talk.” 

Couple her native French tongue with a shy demeanor around new people and the bright lights of NCAA Division I athletics and one gets a picture of the Viens who first arrived on USF’s campus for preseason summer practices. 

But a lot has changed since then. For one, she is now talking — at least when the coaches are not.

“On the field, I am so concentrated. In practice, if someone is speaking (when they should be listening) I’m like, ‘Shh! Shh! We need to understand what’s happening right now,’” she said, putting a finger to her mouth.

This natural gravitation toward leadership has rubbed off on her teammates and a freshman class that has proved vital to the Bulls’ 9-1-1 record in 2016 and an impressive 38th place ranking in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which counts wins, losses and strength of schedule in determining national rankings. 

With all of her individual success — a phrase that makes Viens cringe and insist every goal is the result of team play — it is hard to fathom that she may never have reached USF if not for a change of team early in her soccer career and a coach who re-ignited her love for the game.

After following in her soccer-loving brother Nicolas’ footsteps, Viens found herself enrolled in the youth circuit at what she estimated to be 6 years old. As she progressed and grew more serious, the futility of the team and the pressure she put on herself to carry the burden of winning became too much to bear.

“I was loving soccer, but eventually I wanted to stop,” Viens said. “I was 13 or 14 and I was putting myself under pressure every time (I played). My team was really bad — when I say ‘bad,’ it (was) really bad — so I knew I needed to score if we wanted to continue (to play) together. But then it didn’t work, even if I scored.”

A change of teams would eventually alleviate the pressure, as she found freedom in her new role as a mere contributor for her new club team Club de Soccer de la Haute-Saint-Charles. It was the coach of this team, Fabien Cottin, whom Viens credited for having the patience to meld her focus and drive with a newfound passion for soccer.

“My club coach is one of the best, if not the best, I’ve had,” Viens said, adding that she does not yet know the USF coaching staff well enough yet to make a sure determination. “He helped me go from the bottom to (being) really ready to come (to USF). 

“He was so soccer-smart, never screaming, just saying, ‘You need to do that, that, and that.’ The practices were so concentrated that I think it gave me the attitude to be ready to come here, and have the soccer mind.”

It is this laser-sharp focus and driven attitude — not just her play — that her teammates have taken note of since her first USF practice. Even before she could speak English clearly, Viens’ drive and dedication to the sport were evident.

“Honestly ever since we started playing soccer (as a team) and even when we were doing just the cardio, I could tell that Evelyne was really driven,” said fellow freshman and Canadian Yasmine Hall, who shared a room during summer camp with Viens and freshman Aubrey Megrath. “Even if we’re down, she’s still trying so hard. Some of the girls’ heads are down and Evelyne’s still out there, sprinting everywhere, never stopping.”

It would be easy to buy into the narrative that all of her individual work and self-scrutiny of the flaws or perceived weaknesses in her game had a direct causal effect on her eye-popping stat line. 

But the budding superstar from a picturesque suburb of Quebec City would be quick to correct you, even if it required the use of her sometimes-translator in Hall, who also speaks French but with no hint of the accent.

“I love scoring goals, but I don’t like when (the attention is on) just one person because it’s not (true) that we’re winning (only) because I am scoring goals,” Viens said. “The goalkeeper, Kat (Elliott), is amazing. And nobody’s speaking about Kat. She’s like the main piece of our team.”

Lamenting post-game interviews where she has come to be asked time and again about the significance of her own goals or her individual impact, Viens would much prefer to speak of the team’s achievements as a whole. 

After all, it is the team and its international roster that have played a large part in helping her acclimate to Florida, which has rather quickly become her home away from L’ancienne-Lorette.

She recalled being unsure at the end of high school whether she even wanted to pursue an education away from the comforting confines of L’ancienne-Lorette. And, again, the language barrier was no small part of her initial apprehension about coming to a new country with a culture that could not possible be more different than her hometown, in which 97 percent of the population is native French speakers.

“I didn’t speak English at my house, so I was (thinking) ‘I don’t want to go study in English, I don’t want to leave my house,” Viens said. “I love my family; I love my friends; I just want to stay home.”

But, with a little persuasion on the part of USF assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Jason Dowiak, and a re-assuring visit to the Tampa campus, Viens was in. And so were her parents, Chantel and Andre.

She recalled a visit with her parents to USF in which they had a chance to meet and interact with the coaching staff. She recalls her dad saying, “OK, I can relax now, you are with good people.”

And when the family returned home to their snow-covered home in Quebec, the decision was made.

“I visited in March, and came back to my home — snow was everywhere — and my mom was (like), ‘You need to go,’” Evelyne said, flashing a grin and laughing fondly at the memory.

Viens described USF as “too nice, too beautiful” and a place where, “everything is perfect,” professing a particular love for the beach, perhaps an affinity even greater than her love for soccer. 

But that is not to say her meteoric rise as a freshman and her unwavering reputation as a team-first player has not been without its struggles.

“When I have a day off and I don’t know what to do, I’m like, ‘I want to go home right now.’ Viens said.

But soccer, and the guiding comfort of players like Hall, Megrath, Jamaican-born Trudi Carter and Canadian Leticia Skeete — her designated ‘big sister’ on the soccer team — has helped her find solace in her new home. 

This international mix has taught her new things that help to keep her busy, to keep her mind on friends, soccer and the beach. In other words, to keep her mind off of what she misses about L’ancienne-Lorette.

“I love to learn more about (other) cultures,” Viens said. “You just realize how we are lucky to be here and to study and to play soccer and to just realize the challenge that we have (ahead).”

Though she is unsure about her post-collegiate soccer career, she said she would give professional play a shot if Team Canada comes calling. However, her future degree in accounting gives her the chance to work in both the U.S. or back in Canada. 

One thing is for sure: her career at USF will be one to remember.

“I didn’t go to the NCAA, to USF, just to be on the soccer team and have my jersey and (be satisfied) playing for the Bulls, (to) come back home and be good with that,” she said. “They (the senior class) want to win this year. I think they deserve it. If we (the freshmen) stick together for four years, I’m sure that we are going to win (a title).”