"The player might get past you and the ball might get past you ... but the player and the ball aren't getting past you together."
You've just picked up a pass and are breaking towards the goal, looking for an angle and ready strike - then in a flash, you're down and the ball is gone. You've just been the victim of the Dartmouth women's soccer defense. Any one of the Big Green's primary backs could have caught you with a slide tackle, but if you've been left wondering which way is up, it was probably Thea Sutton '10.
Watch number 21 on the soccer field and you'll see your share of slick tackles and shoves from a player who took that fatherly advice, instilled in her as a youngster by dad, Jamie, to heart. That determination and hard-nosed - but not dirty - play is what got Sutton, now a senior, to Dartmouth and eventually into a starting role.
"I love being that last line of defense," said Sutton of her on-field trade. "I love winning headers and tackling forwards - I'm a very physical player and I'm not particularly fast, so defense works well for me."
The tools of the defensive trade seem perfectly natural for a player who has made a living roughing up opposing strikers before they even get a look at the goal. However, prior to a chance happening at a Dartmouth soccer camp in 2005, Sutton had not played the position since she was on an under-13 team. With her camp team short on defenders, Sutton volunteered to play center back in a game, viewing it as a chance to get on the field.
Call it recruiting instinct or just fate, but head coach Angie Hind liked what she saw that week. "She was a solid central defender: strong athlete, comfortable at the back, good at the ball and very vocal, which turned out very much to be the case," said Hind of her loquacious senior.
For Sutton, stepping up at that moment would prove life changing, as Hind informed her right then and there that Dartmouth wanted to recruit her. Though she took official visits at Middlebury and Williams, there was no contest in Sutton's mind, and Dartmouth was the clear choice.
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Ultimately, Sutton would need every ounce of her innate tenacity both prior to and after her arrival at Dartmouth. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and lateral meniscus in her right knee in May of 2004, when she was 15. She channeled her energy into an aggressive rehab with trainers at Dominican College, near her home in San
Rafael, California and returned to the game in just seven months, impressive by all standards. Fate would test her toughness again in June of 2006, when she tore the lateral meniscus in her right knee, just two months before reporting for preseason at Dartmouth.
Though cleared to play by doctors in late August 2006, Sutton was not quite game-ready and joined a veteran team that was heavy with defenders. As the team rose to a number one ranking in the Northeast and a national ranking of 13th, Sutton spent the entire season watching her team from the sidelines.
"Coming into college I didn't expect to play a lot, but maybe some," she joked. "There were 10 seniors and a lot of really good people on that team. It made me glad I had the experience with my ACL though, because it taught me that there's something bigger than just playing time - there's being on a team, being part of a family and representing
A summer of training at home paid off when Sutton earned her first career start her sophomore year as the Big Green opened the season at #5 Texas A&M in front of 5,000 raucous fans on the Aggies’ home field. Sutton’s effort did not disappoint despite the cruel fate that saw her play a role in both Texas A&M goals — an own goal and a
penalty kick off a handball — and she remembers the game fondly. Maintaining her dogged determination, Sutton started 12 of 23 games played during her sophomore and junior seasons. Ups and downs saw her playing time and starting role change throughout those two years, but her prior experiences kept her grounded.
It all came together for Sutton as a senior. This fall, she started all 15 games she played, sitting two to get rest. Her efforts helped the Big Green sport a goals against average of just 1.15, while allowing an average of just 8.8 opponent shots per game. And the striker turned stopper, who still relishes firing on goal in practice, finally got her first collegiate goal with the game-winner over Columbia on Oct. 25.
"In my experience, often the kids who gradually increase their playing time make the most of it and become the better players," said Hind. "The good thing for Thea was that once we got her out there and she got that experience, she just grew. She has a natural ability to be positive and I just thank her for that."
"These past three seasons have been built off a hard work ethic and the attitude to keep going and keep pushing," said Sutton. "In the end, you're here for the team, to win and have fun. This year I've been able to do all these things because before, I'd gone through everything."
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Now, in fairness to our fearless center back, Sutton is much more than her gritty on-field persona - she plays the game with integrity and as a teammate, is loyal and accepting. Gregarious by nature, she's been gifted with a kindness nurtured by her mother, Lynnette, and is driven by a strong desire to help others. In addition to her time on the soccer field, Sutton's Dartmouth experience has been shaped by relationships with her teammates. Part of an exceptionally close senior class -six women who are rarely apart - Sutton has enjoyed her classmates' diverse experience and the ease of their friendship.
"We're a tight team and the upperclassmen foster a love of Dartmouth women's soccer in the younger players," said Sutton. "It's about instilling a sense of responsibility and respect for the program and knowing that it's a privilege to be on this team. We are recognizable, which is great, but there's pressure to be at the top of your game at all times."
When she did have to be separated from her teammates for off terms, Sutton took full advantage of Dartmouth's quarter system. She spent a term in Australia during her sophomore winter, exploring that country as well as New Zealand, backpacking solo for six weeks. In 2008, the environmental sciences/biology major, interned for Global
Footprint Network, an environmental consulting firm based in Oakland, which allowed her to live at home. A participant in various community service efforts on campus, Sutton also volunteered with MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere), for a week in Ecuador in the summer of 2009. Her group of medical professionals and students provided medical care, education and performed surgeries in rural, underprivileged areas of the country. While medicine is not her calling, she has an interest in both public health and working outdoors. She is particularly interested in care for indigenous communities and the disparities between rural and urban populations even within the United States.
Sutton's perseverance and the passion with which she approaches life allowed her to shine amidst a group of bright stars on the Dartmouth women's soccer team. With the example she leaves to her teammates and the enthusiasm she harbors for the future, Thea Sutton is only just beginning to make her mark on the world.