Abby Smith crumpled on a couch at the Richard Mithoff track and soccer field house the morning of Jan. 15, 2016. The National Women’s Soccer League draft was about to start.
“I literally had no idea where I was gonna go,” Abby Smith, UT’s former goalkeeper and career leader in shutouts with 30, said. The Boston Breakers drafted her with the 27th overall pick.
Abby’s journey to Texas began when she was 7 years old. Fifteen years later, the evolution of mind and body turned Abby Smith into a 22-year-old college supernova and the first soccer player to be drafted in UT history.
She racked up 300 saves in her four years as a Longhorn and was First-Team All-Big 12 Conference her junior and senior seasons.
“It’s just been a slow process of working to get better,” she said. “I’ve gone over humps of working through fitness and being critiqued.”
Before she was UT’s star soccer player, Abby Smith, born in Portland, Oregon, in 1993, moved to Dallas with her parents, Mitchell and Beth Smith. She was 4 years old.
There, Beth worked at North Dallas Athletic Club from 2000 to 2002, a training site for members of the Dallas Sidekicks. Mitchell and Beth became friends with members of the team and took Abby to their games on weekends.
The Sidekicks brought her into the locker room. She scrimmaged with some of the players on the field after games.
The goalie, Sagu, caught her eye.
“Seeing Sagu play indoor, that’s when she knew she wanted to be a goalkeeper,” Mitchell Smith said. “She didn’t really care about watching the players on the field. She just loved the goalkeeper — that’s all she cared about.”
In 2001, Beth switched jobs from North Dallas Athletic Club to the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, taking employee Jesse Llamas with her. Before he worked with Beth, Llamas was a professional goalkeeper, who bounced around between Mexico, El Paso and Dallas in his 10-year career.
Beth brought Abby to work on weekends, and during Llamas’s lunch break, he took Abby to a lush backyard garden outside the Landry Center. Llamas became Abby’s friend and her personal goalie coach. He drilled the fundamentals of goalkeeping into her head.
“I’ve always worked with professional goalkeepers, you know, 18-and-above my whole life — well, for 10 years,” Llamas said. “And to work with her was challenging because I was like, ‘OK, I can’t do the same things I do with professional goalkeepers.’”
At an age when most children were watching cartoons and playing with toys, Abby was perfecting goalkeeping technique. That level of commitment is necessary for any athlete, but rare in a 7-year-old.
“You are always very tentative as a goalkeeper coach because you don’t want to burn them out,” Llamas says. “But she really enjoyed it and really wanted always to do more.”
When Abby was younger, she jumped around club teams, playing for the Texas Longhorns Club soccer team, which then changed its name to Solar Soccer Club when she was 7, and the Dallas Texans, coached by Ian Farley, when she was 8.
Abby was good, but she wasn’t the headliner of the team.
“We found out how far behind she was at her age from the select side,” Mitchell said.
Abby continued to work with Llamas on her own until he became too committed to his own club soccer team. That’s when Sagu came in to help.
Like Llamas, Sagu continued to drill her on the fundamentals of goalkeeping: “how you position your legs, how you position your body,” Sagu said.
She caught up and passed her teammates. Her club team went undefeated in the State Cup.
Ryan Higginbotham met Abby when she was 13, when Abby was moved up in age group with the Texans. Farley would no longer coach her; now it was Shawn Cantrell’s turn. Higginbotham was the director of the girls and Shawn’s assistant.
When Abby was his goalkeeper, Higginbotham knew something others didn’t.
“When I knew that I had Abby Smith in goal, I didn’t think you could beat me,” he said. “And the team felt the same thing.”
Higginbotham didn’t win every game when Abby played for him.
“If I did, I would have won four national championships with her,” he said. “But you still had the feeling, you still had the feeling.”
Under Higginbotham’s coaching, Abby began to blossom into the defensive force she is now. There was the time she practically won a game by herself — “She did it a lot,” Higginbotham interjects — at U16 regional quarterfinals. A majority of the team was injured.
“I wanna say we had, like, seven healthy bodies,” he said. “But we had to get 11 on the field.”
Higginbotham scrapped 11 players onto that field. What ensued was one of the best exhibitions of goalkeeping and managing a game he had ever seen.
“So, the game was 90 minutes long. I think Abby wasted probably 40 minutes,” Higginbotham says. “I can tell you — that day she won a game that we probably shouldn’t have won.”
He became Abby’s head coach when she was a freshman in high school — a time when most protégés are a year away from being discovered. But by that point, Abby was already being recruited and recognized, having received her first recruiting letter when she was in seventh grade. The first one opened the floodgates for more.
The schools that seem to contend for national championships every year began calling. She could have gone to UCLA, Notre Dame, North Carolina or Stanford.
“I thought it was going to be UCLA. I did,” Higginbotham said.
But during Abby’s visit to Texas, former Texas head coach Chris Petrucelli and Abby connected immediately. On the ride back home, Abby told her parents, “I want to be a Longhorn.” It surprised her parents.
Petrucelli was fired Dec. 3, 2011. Abby was a senior at Plano West High School and was two months away from signing her letter of intent to Texas. Angela Kelly was hired Dec. 19, 2011.
The first time Beth spoke with Kelly, they didn’t talk about soccer.
“We talked about Alzheimer’s,” Beth said.
Beth’s father died from Alzheimer’s. Kelly’s mentor and good friend is former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in May 2011. Beth fell in love with her. Abby bonded with her as well when she met her in person for the first time.
UT’s proximity to home also played a part in Abby’s decision to commit to Texas, something she didn’t tell her parents until later.
Abby started as goalie all four years she was at Texas. She earned a spot on the the first or second All-Big 12 teams three of her four years. Abby broke Dianna Pfenninger’s career shutout record on senior night of her senior year — the final home game of the season. When she was honored before the game, she had tears in her eyes.
“It’s something no one else can experience if you’re not here, so this place has been our home, and it’s always sad when you have to move forward, but it’s been a great ride,” Abby said after her final home game Oct. 30.
It’s currently the offseason, so Abby can train and get ready to make the move from the south to the northeast. Texas’s leader in shutouts will keep working hard and pushing herself. Kelly said she’s the future of the Women’s National Team.
“I think it’s gonna be a good change,” Abby said. “Just because you gotta get out of your comfort zone.”