The picture was an early soccer season masterpiece.
A perfect blend of relaxed chatter mixed with laughter, and the poom of a ball being punted beneath the stars, drowned out the chorus of crickets.
A laid back, early September vibe coursed through Springfield College’s campus, the opening days of 2018-19’s first semester bringing no sense of urgency. Classes had merely just begun.
Night touched everywhere. Everywhere, except a drop of illumination on the east side of main campus.
Irv Schmid Complex’s lights were still on. Jill Serafino and Angela Salem, the women’s soccer team’s assistant coaches, were standing in on a late practice held by a group of Pride players.
It was paradise. More specifically, it was Kaleigh Dale’s paradise.
The freshman forward rhythmically dribbled the ball off her left foot, racing down Brock Affleck’s turf as if she had the sphere on a string. Then, she switched to her right foot. She pulled off the same yo-yo-like effect, the same perfected footwork, before dishing it to over to her teammates who opted to stay: Alyana Sosa, Heather Jennato, Kelly Gamble and Amanda Wright.
The rest of the team had long since left for dinner. Yet stunningly, Dale’s legs pumped at a rate near-identical to when she had arrived hours earlier. If possible, she would stay all night.
Dale placed a soccer ball at her feet for the first time, 11 years ago, 9,000 miles away in New Zealand. She hasn’t stopped running since.
“There’s never a day when I wake up and I don’t want to play soccer,” said Dale.
Dale lived for three years overseas, though during separate points in her childhood. She dribbled back and forth in her early years. Dale’s first time in New Zealand was between the age of 2 and 3, before parting back for the States. She later returned with her family at the age of 7 and 9, until moving west again, and settling in Mansfield, Conn.
Dale will always see New Zealand as the special place where she found her athletic identity.
“I first started playing soccer [there] so that will always be important to me. [It’s] where my soccer career began. It’s where I fell in love with the sport,” she said. “When I was  a lot of my friends played … I just think being out [competing] with a team is the most fun thing to do.”
Athleticism is something that runs in the family for Dale. Her father, Darren Dale, was a decorated 400-meter runner and member of New Zealand’s national track and field team. Her mother, Kate, was a dual athlete at Mt. Holyoke, playing both basketball and softball.
Darren and Kate have four children. Kaleigh is the third-born, and youngest daughter.
Their oldest, Siobhan, was an All-American State Champion for Connecticut and went on to swim for one season at Fordham.
Behind Siobhan is McKenna. The Dale’s second eldest was an All-American swimmer in high school and currently a member of Brown’s women’s basketball team.
There is also Kaleigh’s younger brother, Hunter, who has run track and played basketball.
“We just wanted them to pick their favorite one, and Kaleigh always really liked soccer,” said Kate. “Even when she was in fourth grade; she was sick, she had the fever, so I told her she couldn’t go to her soccer game and she insisted on getting dressed into her uniform, putting her cleats on – she sat in her chair by the door and was determined that I was going to take her to the game … That’s Kaleigh, she always wants to be involved and doesn’t like to be told she can’t play.”
The aspect of a team is a large part in what attracted Dale to her favorite sport. Competing alone isn’t something that excites her.
“I’ve always been someone into team sports – being able to play with teammates,” she said. “Being on a team is my favorite thing to do. It’s just different; you make connections with them on and off the field.”
Like Kate, Darren Dale is proud of Kaleigh. He remembers her as a little girl who gave no care to which opponent she needed to face. She’d even play against the boys.
Darren teaches exercise physiology at Eastern Connecticut State University. As someone who has competed professionally, he is a man who has always been interested in various training methods. Darren has tried implementing different ways of practice and conditioning with his children. His hopes throughout each process were to help them perform the fundamentals of their respective sports at an exemplary level.
“The importance and understanding of how to move well when you’re playing sports [is] the same with running and swimming,” he explained. “It’s that it should feel easy, it should feel graceful, you don’t want to force anything … the second part of that is doing as much of it as you can, as long as you enjoy it.”
There’s a reason Dale has the ability and confidence in both her feet. She attributes her success to the training and advice handed down from her father.
“He’d often talk to me about his training, how he got through it. Obviously his training was very tough with being one of the top runners in the country,” said Dale. “He’s showed me to push myself, even if I want to stop running he knows that I have more in me. He showed me how to push through until I knew I gave it everything. It’s all mental.”
These activities stretched from the “keep it up” drill, where she’d need to keep a soccer ball in the air with each foot, to the more rigorous exercises.
“He’s the one who would do the extra exercises with me,” Dale explained. “He lifted with me, he would do sprinting with me long distance. All the little things that young athletes don’t do a lot of, which is why where I am where I am today. He pushes me [to be] the best I can be, but he doesn’t settle for anything less than what I can be.”
Dale credits family for more than her training. Growing up, they helped increase her enjoyment with team play. She also attributes it to her acquired interest in her second sport: basketball.
“[Getting into basketball] was definitely because of my older sister, McKenna. She was playing and she’s always been my role model,” Dale said. “With the amount of talent she has, she’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. Being on the court with her was one of the favorite things I’ve ever done, knowing no matter what she’d always have my back.”
Dale’s older sister, Siobhan, played with the two of them for one season as well. By the time Dale graduated from EO Smith, she knew what she wanted in a collegiate team when continuing her soccer career. She had believed she had found a destination at the end of her sophomore year in Central Connecticut State University after committing to its program. But there was another team that caught her eye later in her college search.
Dale’s decommitment from Central didn’t come from any ill feelings. She was highly impressed with the team. But it was Springfield College’s high sense of community and sports culture that landed her on Alden Street.
“Coming here, I heard a lot of good things about Springfield, how the whole community revolves around athletics. And I also knew how the [women’s soccer team] was really good and had a lot of talent,” she said. “I was definitely nervous [at first] just to see if I’d fit in with everything and it was so much better than I thought it’d be like. The girls were so accepting. Without everyone we wouldn’t be having the season we’ve been having [6-1-1 this season]. When it comes to effort it’s definitely one of the best teams I’ve been on.”
Springfield women’s soccer head coach John Gibson is pleased with what he’s seen from the forward up to this point in her young college career. Dale has registered five goals, one assist, and 11 points in eight games.
Gibson is impressed with how far along Dale’s game is already. He can see both the amount of effort she has already put in, and the effort she is soon to exert for the program.
“The challenge for me will be how good she is when she leaves here. She’s already really good. Is she going to be an All-American when she leaves? Yeah she should be, if I do my job,” he explained. “Sometimes when you find a player with as much talent as [Dale], they aren’t workhorses. She’s very talented and she’s a workhorse. She just never stops. The talent she has combined with her work ethic and her endurance [is what’s impressive]. [Skill wise] she’s quick, she can keep the ball, [and] she can shoot. She has such a good heart. It’s been great to work with her.”
Photos courtesy of Kaleigh Dale