Photos By Nolan P. Schmidt
Aly Cole did not have the most traditional path to college athletics. She went through her high school career unsure of if she even wanted to play beyond a prep career. That level of uncertainty led to her recruiting journey beginning a little later than most athletes.
First, Cole needed to prove to herself that she was good enough to play at the collegiate level. In hindsight, that was the only person she needed to prove as coaches were impressed with her skills as a goalkeeper at Andover High School in Minnesota. Attending a summer camp at Bemidji State was the turning point for Cole in her journey to North Dakota State.
“For a while, I didn’t even think about playing college soccer because I wasn’t really sure if I was good enough. I had a coach back home that told me to go to this camp at Bemidji State. I went there and I kind of realized that I was good enough to play,” Cole said of that revelation. “After that, I thought I better reach out to some schools. I had been interested in NDSU because of its engineering program. So I reached out and sent some film to the coach at the time. It kind of just all fell into place after that.”
The coach at the time was Mark Cook, who got a verbal commitment from Cole in the fall of her junior season of high school. As she began to send coaches film in her sophomore season she realized that her recruiting process would need to be expedited compared to the traditional athlete. It also put a tremendous amount of responsibility on Cole to reach out and do much of her recruiting on her own time.
“I played on a club team that wasn’t crazy good or anything. That kind of made it even harder for me to be seen by coaches because we didn’t do ID camps, scouting tournaments and stuff like that. I kind of had to do it all on my own,” Cole said. “I was lucky, my high school team was actually very good in my junior and senior year, so I used game film from high school games and sent that to them. It was tough and I did camps on my own. When I went to NDSU, I just had to do it myself, basically.”
Over the course of her high school career at Andover, Cole had an impressive 30-4-2 record in goal. Despite that success, she still had to forge her own way to Division I college soccer. Having put in that extra work to even be seen by coaches, Cole’s work ethic translated when she did arrive in Fargo for her freshman year. “In high school, there were three goalkeepers that were all my age. We were constantly fighting for the starting spot and I think that really helped me when I did get to NDSU,” Cole said “Every day, to go into practice and try to win the starting spot. I think that carried over into not only soccer but school too. Working hard for everything kind of taught me a good lesson, you know?”
When she came to Fargo in 2018, she was not expected to become the starting goalkeeper initially. In fact, the program already had a mainstay in the goal in Monica Polgar. Graduating after last season, Polgar is third in program history in both saves and wins. Having an established veteran ahead of her helped Cole improve and find out what it takes to be a collegiate goalkeeper.
“It was so helpful. It was just immensely helpful to me to watch her. Playing at the level I did at the club level, I don’t want to say that I was at a disadvantage, but it was a big jump in the skill level. Watching her, learning from her and having her push me through practice was very important,” she said of Polgar’s influence. “It was my goal to just keep up with Monica. I thought if I could keep up with her that’s good. That’s what I want to keep striving for.”
Constantly pushing herself and holding herself at the same level as Polgar has led to Cole becoming a significantly better goalkeeper. It has also bled into her academic life too, especially in the midst of a pandemic. “I just think I’m a better player than before. I am faster and stronger. I’ve had to overcome some knocks and stuff, but I just think I’m better in every aspect of goalkeeping,” Cole said. “Off the field, I continue to just try and be better and find new ways to study especially with online school. It’s interesting being an engineering student online, but it is what it is. You got to just keep adapting and learning ways to study and stuff.”
Those “knocks” Cole speaks of are battling through injuries. The most serious of these was a UCL tear in her elbow during her freshman season. An injury that serious could have ended Cole’s career for good. Yet, she took it as an opportunity to advance other facets of her game. “I learned how to play with my feet only and that was good. For me, it’s good for goalkeepers to have good foot skills. It was good for me and I was able to work on my fitness more. It was tough. It was a long, long road with three or four months of straight running,” she said. “You can’t get scared. When you’re scared, that’s when you get hurt again. By the time I finally was able to practice again, I was so ready to go. I was just going to go for it and I knew it would be fine. I wore a brace for probably a year after when I was playing. It was a great day when I finally got the brace off.”
With soccer moving their season to the spring, Cole has had some extended time to prepare for the season. She will be looked upon as the starter at goalkeeper for the Bison and it is an opportunity she is ready to take on. “I’m already so excited. Especially for me, because I’ve played some spring games and some preseason games or whatnot. This is my first real game and so I’m very excited to really get into it and see what everyone can do. I’m excited about this team, for sure,” Cole said.
In high school, there were three goalkeepers that were all my age. We were constantly fighting for the starting spot and I think that really helped me when I did get to NDSU. Every day, to go into practice and try to win the starting spot.
The extended time away from the pitch has allowed Mike Regan’s club to get up to speed and improve on the little things. While a fall season was always ideal, the season moving to the spring is something that is being embraced by Cole and her teammates.
“We always strive to have good team chemistry. It’s great that the freshmen can hold the seniors accountable and the seniors can hold the freshmen accountable,” she said. “It’s the same for anyone in between. I’m very excited for the season.”
Aly Cole has consistently paved her own way over the course of her life. She went the extra mile in her recruiting to make sure she ended up in the right situation. That situation ended up being North Dakota State. Now, all of that hard work to get here has paid off as she gets set to suit up in goal for the Bison this spring.