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Junior defender trailblazes path through Rutgers

<p>Sophia Walia is the first Sikh to play for the Rutgers field hockey team. The junior defender has been an integral piece to the Knights as one of the team's top defenders.</p>

Sophia Walia is the first Sikh to play for the Rutgers field hockey team. The junior defender has been an integral piece to the Knights as one of the team's top defenders.

When most athletes don their team’s jersey and come out to compete, they are playing for their perpetual love for the sport. For others, each time they step on the field they are exemplifying a much greater purpose.

Rutgers field hockey’s ace defender Sophia Walia has embodied this distinction ever since her initial trip of nearly 3,000 miles over to the Banks.

After being handed a field hockey stick as a six-year-old girl growing up in Surrey, British Columbia, Walia got called up to play with the Canadian Junior National Team when she was just 12 years old.

Moving forward through high school, Walia was faced with the decision to either stay home and continue training for the Canadian National Team — which ranks in the top 10 in indoor and the top 20 in outdoor by the International Hockey Federation — or come to the U.S. to play for Rutgers while earning her degree.

With such a cumbersome decision before her, Walia saw the chance to not only to build a foundation for a budding NCAA field hockey program, but also to represent her heritage and epitomize the promise that lies in embracing oneself.

“I’m the first Sikh to play for Rutgers which is huge … I think for me my biggest thing is playing for who I am. (To) just show people that it’s doable even if you’re a girl and allowing Indian parents with such strict kind of backgrounds to know to give their girl a chance is a big deal. I think my parents really demonstrated that and that’s why I’m here today and doing what I am.”

Each step of Walia’s career as a student athlete at Rutgers is influenced not just by her own passion for the game, but also by the change that her journey exemplifies.

“I mean, I play for myself sometimes because I love the game but I do play it to represent Sikhism and represent the young Indian girl being able to do stuff like this.”

Since coming to Rutgers nearly three years ago, Walia’s impact on the field has been momentous every step of the way.

In her debut season as a Scarlet Knight, Walia was one of just five players to start all 18 games. The then-17-year-old earned honorary recognition for her breakout year, landing a spot on the 2013 All-BIG EAST Second Team and the Longstreth/NFHCA Division I All-Mid-Atlantic Region Second Team.

This was just the beginning.

During her sophomore year, Walia tied the team-best with three defensive saves. She also saw time at midfield through her second season, prompting strong offensive outcomes that included a team-leading tally of six assists. She ranked second on the Rutgers squad with seven goals—two-game winners—and 20 total points which more than doubled her prior career-high.

While many college students fall victim to the sophomore slump, Walia produced the opposite result through this trying halfway mark.

She was named to the 2014 Longstreth/NFHCA Division I All-Mid-Atlantic Region First team and was honored with the Rutgers Sophomore Female Athlete of the Year Award.

Now winding down her junior campaign, the 2015 Big Ten Player to Watch has remained a force for the Knights' midfield and defensive units, earning a start in 12 of 15 games played.

Not only does her progressive success carry significance for Walia and the program at Rutgers, but also for her who she is and the underrepresented religious community that she is a part of.

“I think it’s a blessing to be named and to win all the first team (honors) … to be the first Sikh name to those things is amazing,” Walia said.

While Walia's many accomplishments produce triumphs for her own athletic career and the Rutgers field hockey program, they also further strengthen an embodied beacon of hope for aspiring female Sikhs who hope to follow a similarly unconventional path.

Head coach Meredith Civico sees Walia’s presence on the field as a major benefit to the growth of both the team and individual players.

“(Walia) is a field hockey player I think in its truest and purest sense. She’s just a player who loves the game, who sees the game, and can execute under pressure,” Civico said. “I think she brings a creative element to the team as well. She sees things that other players don’t necessarily see or think of, and I think she in turn makes her teammates and the players around her better. She’s somebody who’s not afraid to take risks and not afraid to try things and she thinks outside the box and I think that adds a lot of value to the team.”

Walia’s unwavering passion for the game and for the collective team vision about where their program can go perpetuates her continuous growth as a field hockey player.

This enthusiasm has been blatant and steadfast since Civico first began recruiting her to come to Piscataway and help make her vision for the Knights field hockey program a reality.

“She was just somebody who was just so excited about the possibility of coming to Rutgers and excited about being part of a program that was the rise and being a part of building something at Rutgers,” Civico said. “She was just so genuine with her excitement about Rutgers and I really still to this day enjoy that about (Walia).”

For updates on the Rutgers field hockey team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter. 

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