Home away from home

Published by Tyler Howe, Date: October 10, 2021
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Home is a tricky term. It can refer to the place where you grew up or where family is. For Kayla Swope, it can just be described as somewhere she feels the most comfortable, which happens to be Slippery Rock.

Swope’s often thinks back to her greyish-blue sneakers that she wore during her first season of soccer at six years old. Her parents wouldn’t get her cleats because soccer was the third sport she had tried. Since gymnastics and softball didn’t end too well, it made since that why her parents didn’t want to invest in a sport that Swope could quickly lose interest in.

“My parents were like we’re not going to spend $30 or $40 on a pair of cleats, if you might not even continue to play,” Swope said with a smile. “Which was fair.”

It wouldn’t be long before her parents realized that she was going to stick with soccer though. Her family, who before she had started to play was never big into soccer, began to follow her in that love. That includes her younger brother, Connor, who also plays soccer in the PSAC system at Lock Haven University.

“Since six or seven, soccer has pretty much been my life,” Swope said.

She began to develop an IQ of the game that not many people have. She played with Connor and his friends a lot growing up. Playing against boys, she always had to come up with strategies to beat them. She was able to do that quite often. She also watched a ton of soccer. From Major League Soccer to the Premier League to watching her favorite player, Lionel Messi. If you ask Swope, he’s even the greatest of all time. She was always doing something that related to soccer.

Her passion for the game grew rapidly and as a result, Swope played a lot of soccer and turned into a very good player. She played all four years on varsity at Northern York High School, which earned her attention from colleges. She also played a lot of club soccer, and as fate would have it, that led her to meet current Slippery Rock head coach Jessica Giegucz.

Swope played at the club level for Giegucz, and even today when the team is doing certain drills, she’ll remember them from when she was young. She joked that it’s sort of nostalgic. The crazy part is, Swope had never heard of Slippery Rock before she came to a camp here the summer before her sophomore year.

“I wanted to come to ID camp here because I knew [Giegucz], and just get it out of the way because I had never heard of Slippery Rock before and I knew nothing about, but I just wanted to get it out of the way because ID camps are pretty stressful,” Swope said. “But then when I got here, I was like ‘oh okay I actually kind of like this campus’ and just felt like home.”

One of the biggest things that stood out when Swope eventually made her decision on where she was going to play college soccer, was her observation of how much everyone truly cared for each other. Swope had never felt that before.

It was an easy decision to come here, but she could have never imagined that the 2019 season would go the way it did. It all started before the team even stepped on the field. Before Swope even played a game for The Rock, the team took a trip to Costa Rica. That trip is where Swope started to become close with the entire team.

“I felt like I traveled to Costa Rica with strangers, but in a week, I grew so close with the team,” Swope said. “It’s a just a special bond traveling with people, and I think that definitely added to the success and the chemistry the team had.”

That chemistry translated to the field during the 2019 season. After opening the season with a loss, the team won seven straight games. In the fourth game of that stretch, Swope scored her first collegiate goal against Seton Hill University.

“Scoring my first PSAC goal against Seton Hill and having everyone run up to me and jumping on Julia [Mascaro], was just a special moment for me,” Swope said.

It was the first of eight goals she scored that season. In her freshman year, Swope started all 22 games. She found success early and often. She was a crucial piece in the team that would win the PSAC.

In their first season back together, Giegucz and Swope had a magical run. A lot of that due to the culture that Giegucz and the players have created within the team. There were a few pivotal moments in that season. From the come behind win against Edinboro University to secure the PSAC west to hosting the PSAC tournament at home.

The Rock squared off with Edinboro University in the championship game on home turf, and late in the game the score remained 1-1. Then Swope broke through and was able to put the game-winning goal in the back of the net.

“Honestly I didn’t consider it the winning goal until I looked at an article that said my name, because so many things had happened after that including Emma Yoder stopping penalty kick,” Swope said. “When I’m playing, I just black out when I’m in the box and my body just kind of takes over, I don’t remember the ball going in, but I do remember the big hug everyone shared after it.”

That game also meant a lot to Swope as she was able to help her old club coach earn her first PSAC title. After the game, Giegucz and Swope embraced and were able to bask in the moment. That’s something Swope will never forget.

The season ended a few days later after a 4-2 loss to West Chester University in the NCAA tournament. That was the last time the team would play an actual game until Sept. 2, 2021.

When COVID-19 hit, Swope, like many others, went home. The feeling of no soccer was an odd one. Up to then, her life had consisted of soccer on a daily basis. The entire sports world was shut down in an instant, and no one knew when it was coming back.

That time allowed her to just work. She could get up and go for a run whenever she wanted, but that desire to get back on the field ate away at her. It drove her, but then her fall season was canceled. Normal still seemed to be so far away.

COVID-19 protocols required the team to only meet in small groups, and they could shoot around on James Egli Field, but the competition wasn’t there. Sports were slowly creeping back, but not any in the PSAC. Yet, Swope still held out hope for a spring season.

“I was really frustrated, because I was really hopeful, we would play in the fall and then that was canceled and then they said we might be able to play in the spring and that was also canceled,” Swope said. “I think that second time it really hit I was frustrated because my brother was a senior in high school at the time and he got to play, and it just felt like everyone else got to play and I was like why can’t we just play?”

The path to playing again was a long and grueling one for Swope. All she wanted was to be back out on the field playing. It was a long time before that finally happened.

When she finally got back on the field to start the 2021 season, you could see her smile for miles.

“It was kind of weird, we got to play a little in the spring, but I was super excited,” Swope said. “I couldn’t stop smiling that game because I was so excited to be back out there playing a game.”

This season has served as a reminder to Swope that it could be gone at any moment. Swope, like many others, has that athlete’s mentality. She gets frustrated when things don’t go her way, but this season she’s tried to change that up a little bit. It was gone for so long, and now that she has it back, she just wants to enjoy it.

Tyler is a junior communication major with a concentration in converged journalism. He’s in his third year with Rocket and it’s his second semester as assistant sports editor. Through his first two years, he wrote nearly 70 articles. The majority of which have been for the sports section, but he has also written for campus life.

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