Utah’s Vukic has soccer in her blood


Jameson Clifton

For freshman Natalie Vukic, it was always going to be about soccer. It just runs in the family.

“It’s not really something that I communicated, it’s just in the air,” Vukic’s father George said. “Soccer was on the TV, and it was something we spoke of passionately. I didn’t have to convince any of the kids to get involved; it was kind of in the bloodstream.”

Vukic grew up on Bainbridge Island just outside of Seattle, Wash. When she wasn’t kicking the ball around in the backyard, she was admiring her surroundings and the nature she was able to explore. Ultimately, she ended up at the U, a decision that both she and her family are proud of.

Natalie’s hometown has a special place in her heart. Her father remembers her bedroom walls decorated with owls and wolves. Her artwork from a young age also reflected her love of the Northwest.

She loved soccer just as much as nature. Her father played at the University of San Francisco, her mother played in high school and all three of her siblings play.

Vukic’s father is the director of coaching for Kitsap Alliance FC, a youth club based out of Silverdale, Wash. He noticed early on that Natalie was a natural goal scorer and could compete at a high level. Unfortunately, the level of play on Bainbridge Island was not high enough for her. She ended up taking a 40-minute ferry ride to Seattle in order to find the competition she craved.

“There is a club on the island, but the club situation there isn’t that good, so I started playing off island,” Vukic said. “It was higher level of playing; I was trying to play at my highest level.”

Her father did get a chance to coach her for a few years. The fine line between parent and coach wasn’t something that troubled him at all.

“That dividing line between parent and coach is something I am pretty OK with, it’s pretty easy for me,” George Vukic said. “It was great coaching [Natalie]. She was a very strong player. She had a lot to do with the team culture. I can separate my parenthood with my coaching. It was about soccer — when I coach it’s about soccer.”

As she excelled and continued to score goals, schools began to take interest. Head coach Rich Manning first heard of her through an old friend.

“She called me about a couple of her players that were a year or two older than Natalie, and said, ‘Hey do you have any more need for these players?’” Manning said. “I said ‘No, but do you know anybody that is going to score goals?’ and she told me about this one young girl.”

Vukic was playing a few years up on her older sister’s team in a tournament in California. Manning found out right away the talent she had for scoring goals, as he recalls her netting nine goals over the course of three games that tournament. He was sold and wanted her for his team.

“That’s the first thing I noticed about her,” Manning said. “She also has great soccer instincts, very composed in the attacking part of the field. So those are the things we really like.”

When she was considering the different offers from schools, she was still uncertain about whether she wanted to leave her home state. Then she saw Utah.

“When I came and visited here I was like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s beautiful,’” Vukic said. “It’s not just about the sports; it recognizes the academic side a lot too. So that was really important to me. It was the only Pac-12 offer I got, so that’s huge.”

The fit seemed perfect. She got a chance to play in the Pac-12, the best conference for women’s soccer, and receive a strong academic experience.

When she finally arrived at the U, the team hit the ground running. Workouts and practices filled all her time before her first semester started. It was just what she wanted.

A goal she set for herself before arriving was to work her way into the starting 11. The task would be a difficult one since Manning had nine returning starters. Vukic was worried about whether the team and coaching staff would recognize her ability. She knew what she could do, but the problem was being able to show it in practice.

A few days before the first game of the season, Manning called Vukic into his office. She was informed that she would be starting her very first game. This was a big deal because starting a freshman is not something Manning does normally, but he had faith.

“You never expect a freshman to start,” Manning said. “But she showed from the beginning that she has good soccer touch, good athleticism and a good heart out on the field.”

Immediately after the meeting, she called her parents to tell them the good news. They were more surprised at the fact that she earned the spot so fast. They had no doubt she would get her chance, just not this soon.

Vukic has played in all 19 games this season and has been a starter for 18 of them. Her first collegiate goal came against Utah State, and she has gone on to score two more goals this season, which ties her for second most goals on the team this season.

As she navigates her first year in college, she has been surprised by how much more aggressive the game is played. Her father has taken more of a parental approach to his daughter’s first year.

“We’re focused more on the fact that if she’s made great friends, if she’s on the field, if she loves the school and it’s a four-year plan more,” George Vukic said. “Her overall well-being is our biggest concern.”

Vukic’s father believes that as she continues to grow in the sport and as a person, she will increase her goal-scoring for the Utes, something Manning will have to look forward to.

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