On Saturday, April 23, Erica Skroski set foot on Yurcak Field for the first time in almost five months. Lining up next to her teammates, she posed for the traditional picture of the starting lineup before jogging to her spot on the back line.
Looming out in the distance was the Rutgers University scoreboard, a welcome sight to Skroski after four years spent on that very field. Only this time, things were different.
This time, instead of the scarlet-and-white uniform of Rutgers University, Skroski was outfitted in the blue-and-white of her new club team, Sky Blue FC.
But one thing remained the same: Erica Skroski was home.
Jersey girl through and through
Erica Skroski grew up in Galloway Township, New Jersey, the daughter of Greg Skroski and Ellie Kinsey-Hayden. Like many other soccer players, Skroski has been playing the sport as long as she can remember.
"Honestly, I don’t really remember the age I started playing. I just remember it was literally when I could walk," she said. "It was the first sport I was thrown into. I would say I was probably four, and then have just been playing ever since."
Soccer was not the only sport Skroski played, although it eventually won out. Growing up, Skroski also played basketball and baseball on a boys’ baseball team, where she pitched and played third base. She played both sports until about her eighth grade year, when time commitments for soccer and the size differences between her baseball teammates and her became too much.
"I was 13 or 14 and the boys were getting too big and they pitched too fast and it was just time. I played for long enough where I could keep up with them, and they hit a peak and were just too good," she recalled. "Soccer was just so much, with club starting, so I got rid of baseball and stayed with soccer."
Skroski went on to play soccer both for her club team and for her high school, Absegami High School in Galloway. There, Skroski was a four-year varsity starter as a central midfielder. She was named first-team All-Conference as a sophomore, first team All-South Jersey as a junior and The Press of Atlantic City’s Girl Soccer Player of the Year as a senior.
In her senior year, Skroski scored 15 goals to lead her team to a 16-3-1 record and to its second-consecutive Cape-Atlantic League (CAL) American Conference Title. Skroski was also a CAL Senior All-Star game participant and finished out her high school career as TopDrawerSoccer.com’s eighth-ranked overall player in New Jersey.
Not surprisingly, Skroski was heavily recruited by colleges from all over, but the appeal of playing in her home state won out, and she signed with Rutgers University.
"It’s just amazing in general, just because I’ve been born and raised here. Going from South Jersey to Rutgers and being able to play here in front of my friends and family, it’s just awesome," she said.
Skroski the Scarlet Knight
It was on Yurcak Field that Skroski spent much of her time in college. She first played there in 2012 when she made her debut for the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights. As one of ten freshmen on the team, Skroski almost immediately started having an impact. She started in 16 of the 20 games she played in, took 17 shots and tallied an assist.
It was also in her freshman year that Skroski was shifted back to central defender, and it was there that Skroski and her center back partner Brianne Reed became a powerhouse defensive duo in women’s college soccer.
"I think that just being together since sophomore year, growing junior year and finally coming together as seniors, and really knowing basically the potential we had as a back line and as a team collectively, I think that kind of pushed us," Skroski said about her and Reed’s defensive efforts.
Their time together in the center of Rutgers’s back line created an undeniable chemistry on and off the field between the two.
"Bri and I just worked so well together that we just kind of grew in an unspoken relationship on the field just from playing with each other for so long and being so close off the field as well. If she made a movement on the field, I knew exactly where she was going. She didn’t even have to tell me, and vice versa," Skroski said.
Behind the defensive efforts of Skroski and Reed, Rutgers had over 770 minutes of shut out soccer, recorded a nation’s best 19 shut outs and set program records for wins (19), home wins (13) and fewest goals allowed (10). They also led their team to its first ever NCAA College Cup.
In the College cup, the Scarlet Knights fell to Penn State, who would go on to win the title, 2-0 in the Final Four. Despite the disappointing loss, Skroski said she was excited about how far Rutgers managed to go in her final season with the team.
"I couldn’t picture a better way to go out, especially with the team that we had," Skroski said, her voice full of pride for her team’s accomplishments. "We just stuck together to prove ourselves and to show everyone that, first of all, we belong in the Big Ten, but we proved ourselves on the national stage as well, getting to the Final Four. That’s just an awesome way to end our four years."
The impressive play by both Skroski and Reed led them both to declare for the NWSL draft back in January, and the two, along with their families, traveled to Baltimore to attend the event. Sitting next to Reed, Skroski watched as her teammate was taken as the 18th overall pick by FC Kansas City.
Just five picks later, Skroski was drafted by her home team, Sky Blue FC.
The move to Sky Blue
Being drafted by Sky Blue has given Skroski a unique opportunity. While other seniors drafted either had to switch to online courses or put their academic careers on hold, Skroski has been able to continue attending classes at Rutgers while training and competing for Sky Blue.
For the most part, her class and training schedules have allowed her to juggle the two relatively easily, attending training in the mornings and going to class in the afternoons. In the times when there was conflict between her college work and playing professionally, she said both her professors and Sky Blue’s coaches have been understanding and accommodating to her needs.
"There were a couple of times when I missed exams, but my professors understood and let me make them up. And there were times when I couldn’t go to training because I had to study or I had work or something I had to do for school, and they completely understood," she said. "There are sometimes I wish I wasn’t at school because I want to focus on soccer, obviously, but I made it this far, so for still being here and having the ability to go to class and still get my credits and try to graduate is huge."
Skroski said she has three more credits and an internship, which she will complete after season's end, before graduating in December.
Not only has playing on the same field for her professional career as she did her collegiate career allowed her to continue attending classes as normal, but it has also allowed her family, friends and former teammates to come out and support her as well.
"The opening game at Yurcak, all of my friends and my family came. The [Rutgers] soccer team here had a huge tailgate with food and stuff, so it was awesome," she said.
Draft pick to starting lineup
Skroski’s transition from college to her professional career has been smooth thus far, and so has her transition from draft pick to starting center back for Sky Blue FC.
During the preseason, SBFC defender Lindsi Cutshall announced that she would be sitting out the 2016 season. Cutshall had suffered a number of injuries in her previous seasons of play, and medical specialists had advised her to take a break from the sport.
Cutshall’s absence created a gaping hole in the center of the SBFC back line, and Skroski seemed like a natural fit. In Sky Blue’s two preseason matches, the young defender played all but 45 minutes, helping her new team get shut outs over both St. John’s University and the University of North Carolina.
Her play during preseason earned her a spot on the full roster and, perhaps surprisingly to some fans unfamiliar with Skroski’s play at Rutgers, a spot in the starting XI.
"Erica has been absolutely fantastic since she came to our club," Sky Blue FC Head Coach Christy Holly said. "She is a player with whom I have been very familiar over the past few years because of her college career in New Jersey at Rutgers University. She has developed a very good relationship with Christie Rampone in the center of our back line, and she has shown a fantastic attitude towards learning. We are very excited for what she brings to the team, not only this season, but also in the coming years."
So far this season, Skroski has started all four matches for Sky Blue, playing all but three minutes on a back line consisting of Rampone, U.S. Women’s National Team defender Kelley O’Hara, and fellow rookie Erin Simon.
"The fact that I’m playing alongside Christie Rampone is amazing, and then I look to my left and there’s Kelley O’Hara. At first I was like, ‘This is crazy that I’m even in this position right now,’" Skroski said of her instantaneous jump from college to professional starter.
Even with two rookies, Sky Blue’s back four have arguably been the strongest part of their lineup so far this season. They were essential in preventing the Seattle Reign FC from scoring an equalizing goal in SBFC’s one win of the season, and the foursome held the Houston Dash to a scoreless draw despite a Sky Blue attack that was almost completely ineffective.
While much credit goes to Rampone and O’Hara, the two veterans on SBFC’s back line, Skroski’s play has been impressive as well, earning her the praise of her mentor and teammate.
"Even though she is a rookie, Erica has started off very strong. She is very composed on the ball, which is something you do not see often with first-year players. She also sees the field well offensively, and we continue to get stronger defensively in terms of being connected as we learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. She has been brilliant so far and fun to work with, and we are building a great partnership," Rampone said.
Skroski said that partnership with Rampone, along with the tight bond of the back line, is what has led them to be as successful as they have been on the field.
"We trust in each other and are always communicating with each other on the field, and just talking and being comfortable with each other off the field as well. We’re just so tight as a unit, and we just make sure we always hold our line. We’re kind of not strict with the details back there, but we know how it has to be, and I think that’s how we’ve managed to minimize the opponents’ opportunities this season so far," she said.
Although Sky Blue has dropped both of its home matches at Yurcak Field so far this season, Skroski remains excited for the chance to continue her soccer career on the same pitch where it really took off.
"Sometimes I can’t believe that this has actually happened because it’s so ideal," Skroski said. "I just got so lucky, and it’s so awesome that I’m still here and I’m still in Jersey playing in my home state in front of my friends and family. It’s just awesome."