Gray returns to Reinhardt in time for conference championship

Swainsboro’s own Kirsten Gray has returned to Reinhardt University in Waleska just in time to compete with the women’s soccer team for the conference championship. Her return to RU comes after a semester away at Georgia Southern due to COVID concerns. The Reinhardt Eagles entered spring competition following one of their most successful fall seasons in history in 2020, making them a top contender for the conference title, and the team will only be made stronger with Gray’s rejoining the team, thanks to her aggressive style of play and solid defensive skills.

The daughter of Jeffery and Angela Gray began playing soccer when she enrolled in Swainsboro-Emanuel County Recreation Department at 4-years-old. She fell in love with the game and continued to find ways to play in an area where opportunities to participate in competitive, organized soccer were scant. Gray came up through the rec league playing co-ed soccer. By the time she reached junior high, Swainsboro Middle School had incorporated a co-ed soccer club. Though unconventional and perhaps frustrating at times, Gray’s skills evolved quickly and greatly due to the experiences she had playing with and against her male counterparts. Swainsboro High School implemented its soccer program as Gray entered her freshman year in 2015, and there could have been no one more mentally and physically ready to lead the Lady Tigers in their inaugural season.

Throughout high school, Gray also played softball for three years, ran cross country two years, and ran track one year—but her heart was on the soccer pitch. She played soccer all four years for Swainsboro, working through the growing pains of a new program, eventually—but considerably quickly—turning the program into a formidable one. Her freshman year, the Lady Tigers went 3-10. The tides started to turn the next year as the team went 10-9. Just three years into the soccer venture, the Lady Tigers finally saw a winning season when Gray was a junior as that team went 12-6-1. The story was the same her senior year when Swainsboro went 13-5. Throughout her high school career, Gray played so well she was named Offensive Player of the Year for Region 2-AA three of her four years. She was also dubbed MVP for Region 2-AA two years during high school.

All the while, Gray was juggling academics and club soccer. She played with a handful of club teams over the years, finishing her club career with the Augusta Arsenal. Through her involvement with that team, specifically at a showcase in Savannah, Gray caught the attention of multiple college coaches. LaGrange College, Mars Hill University, ABAC, Georgia Southwestern,, and, of course, Reinhardt, all pursued Swainsboro’s star footie. In the end, she chose Reinhardt and signed to become a Lady Eagle in March 2019, making school history in the process as Swainsboro’s first (and only to date) soccer player to land a scholarship.

Gray graduated high school that May and arrived on campus in August. She entered her freshman season as a striker, a player who mainly attacks and scores goals. Head coach Andy Kaplan approached her sometime after the team’s fourth or fifth game and told her Gray he was transitioning her to holding mid, a move she attributes to her aggressiveness, the team’s surplus of strikers, and a lack of depth at midfield. Right away, she loved the position change; getting to play defense has been an incredibly fun experience, and she’s grateful for the opportunity—not to mention she’s a natural there. She started every game as holding mid, competed well enough to make the all-conference team despite playing on a toe injury all year, and didn’t miss a beat until her sophomore season was altered due to coronavirus.

Athletes across the country felt the pandemic’s effects on college athletics, and those effects trickled down to Reinhardt. With season up in the air, Gray made the difficult decision to forgo whatever would be the remnants of her sophomore season, transferring back close to home to attend Georgia Southern University this past fall semester. She was hopeful college athletics would return to some sense of normalcy later down the road and kept her mind and body at work, playing Sunday leagues with guys and pick-up games on the side, all the while missing her Reinhardt family. Gray rejoiced when she found out RU’s season would continue this spring, and she immediately informed her coaches and teammates that she would return to Waleska for Spring 2021 semester and rejoin the team.

She re-enrolled at RU back in January with enough credit hours to be considered a junior. Athletically, she’s a sophomore because COVID-19 cut seasons short, essentially giving all student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.

Gray wasn’t with the team during its regular season in the fall, but she gets to join the RU Eagles as they continue their quest for a conference championship in just a few weeks. Reinhardt finished the fall season 12-1 with 58 goals, securing second place in the Appalachian Athletic Conference behind Truett McConnell, who handed the team its one loss on the year.

In November, the AAC set the dates for return to play for fall sports, women’s soccer included, whose seasons were pushed to spring and were consequently unable to host their championship tournaments. RU and other schools were allowed to resume practicing February 15. Gray, along with her team, as well as other schools, can begin playing regular season contests March 4 with teams permitted to play four matches against conference and/or non-conference opponents between that date and April 10. Teams must complete their conference schedule prior to the conference tournament, which will see just four teams participating. Each round will be hosted at the higher seed’s home site with the semifinal round matches being played between March 29-31. That is the occasion Gray and company are looking forward to; should they win against their opponent, whoever that might be, RU will advance to the championship matches to be played between April 5-7.

Gray and her team are working diligently to make that goal a reality, but she has some goals of her own she’s working to actualize as well. Ideally, she wants to score more goals, earn a bigger conference award, and, of course, graduate. The skills she has learned so far as a college-athlete, namely mental toughness, time management, teamwork, dedication, and sacrifice, will help her en route to realizing all of those goals, individual and team alike.

She is currently studying for a business management degree with tentative plans to work in the sporting industry after graduation. To the student-athletes who read this article, Gray’s best advice is to not give up, ask for help when you need it, and know that the extra work and commitment you have to put in to make it to the next level are worth it.

Gray also stresses the importance of staying encouraged and having the right people in your circle. Her parents and her sister, Hannah, were there for her every step of the way and continue to be her biggest supporters. She also credits much of her success to her past and current teammates. Others who were integral in getting her to Reinhardt were Chang Hua Lin and Mark Haddock, both of whom pushed for Swainsboro to incorporate a soccer program, and Keith Delima.

Lastly, to the community, Gray wants to use this platform, this story, to encourage everyone to support the local soccer programs and to become more involved with those programs. Two easy ways you can do that, she says, are going to watch soccer games and giving your child the opportunity to play, be it at the rec level, school level, or both.

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