Cara Walls has had one of the most successful soccer careers in the history of Wisconsin youth and college soccer. As a U18 youth player, Cara played a key part in helping her team win Wisconsin's only youth national championship in 2011, where she also won the "Golden Boot" for being the leading scorer in the event and was named to the National Championship's "First Eleven" as one of the best eleven players. Her honors continued in college at the University of Wisconsin, where as a senior in 2014 she helped Wisconsin win the Big Ten Tournament Championship and was named to the 2014 All-Big Ten First Team, one of fewer than 20 Badgers ever to earn this honor. It was one of many honors in her career at Wisconsin:
How would you describe your club experience?
"I will always look back at my club soccer years as one of the most fun times of my life. Club was a really good learning and growing period for me, and a time that prepared me to compete and succeed at one of the highest levels of women’s soccer. Although high-level club soccer can be overwhelming at times, the enormous improvements I made in soccer combined with all the memories created while traveling the country with my friends, made the occassional stress more than worth it! "
How did you pick the University of Wisconsin as the place you wanted to go to school and play soccer?
"After leaving my club team where we competed against the best players in the country, I knew I wanted to go to a school that would put me in a position to do the same. I thought Wisconsin was a great place to challenge myself against top college teams and players, and still be able to receive a great education. Also, at the time I really wanted to play with Laurie Nosbusch, who I grew up watching as she also played for my club. Growing up I always admired her and thought she was an amazing player, so my final decision came down to (partially) getting to play with Laurie for a year." (To read a similar interview with club alum Laurie Nosbusch, click here!)
How did the training and competition you had as a youth player help prepare you for collegiate success?
"Especially lookin back, it is easy to say that the training and competition I had at the club level was some of the best in the country. It was crucial to my development because it exposed me to a very high level of soccer and showed me what the best players and teams were doing to be successful. It also made me familiar with different styles of play, helped me to understand and read the game, and technically made me better everyday. When I got to college, it was very clear to see which girls didn’t come from a high level of club soccer - those players didn’t understand patterns and the timing behind them, their technique couldn’t keep up with the higher speed of play, and they had trouble reading the game and simply identifying the right pass. When I realized how easy it was to identify these players, it made me very thankful for my club experience. The high pace we practiced at in club and the constant demand for being at your best is crucial at that stage of development, and not something you see everywhere."
What are your favorite memories of playing in club?
"My favorite memory from club soccer was the summer of my final (U18) year, and specifically the practices leading up to the national championships. After my team won regionals and set our sights on nationals, we buckled down even more and really focused during training. I can think back to those practices when we were the only team in the club out there practicing in July; I picture us doing patterns to goal and I can remember something clicking in my head and I thought, “Wow we look really sharp and focused ... we really are one of the best teams in the country”. Just knowing we were one of four youth teams in the country still training and getting better at that time of the year was a special feeling. Although those couple weeks of training were a little rough, (doing fitness in jackets to prepare for Arizona heat), I also remember them being so fun in a weird way, with popsicles after fitness, more time to joke and spend extra time with my teammates. Obviously going to the National Championships in Arizona, staying at a beautiful hotel, and winning a National Championship was amazing in itself, but the excitement and preparation in those weeks leading up to winning the National Championship will always have a special place in my heart."
How do you think your soccer career (youth and college) helped you most?
"The biggest thing playing soccer has done for me is give me confidence in myself as a person. Being forced to push through difficult fitness, find energy in the final minutes of games, and learning to be a good leader and teammate are all things I found I am capable of doing through soccer. It’s easy and generic for people to tell you, “You can do anything! So believe in yourself”, and you might even nod your head and pretend to agree. But once you’re in the position where you physically push through those barriers and come out successful, those words take on a whole new meaning that carry over into all other areas of your life. So aside from meeting some of my best friends, getting a great education and doing what I love, I encourage girls to play soccer because it is extremely empowering. It can help you realize how strong you are capable of being, and more importantly will help you realize how conquerable fear and limitations really are."
You earned All-Big 10 First Team Honors this year, an honor fewer than 20 Badgers in history have received. What does that mean to you?
"Winning that award was a really good feeling. It felt good personally because to me it said that throughout my four years at Wisconsin I continued to get better, instead of slowly declining like a lot of players tend to do. More importantly, it was satisfying because it was a positive representation of my teammates, coaches and program. We had three girls in total on the Big 10 First Team, which I think was the first time in program history. That is a tribute to our team and how hard we worked to change the program, and I was just grateful to be one of the players to represent that, because we had a lot of very worthy recipients."
You helped Wisconsin win the Big Ten Tournament Championship this year. What was that experience like?
"That was also a really amazing experience. Similar to my club experience it was really good to finish my career on a winning note. In college it was extra special because of how poorly my team had done the previous year. My junior year we had all the same personnel except for one starter, so after finishing in the bottom of the Big Ten and losing the first round of the conference tournament we were really upset because we knew we had the talent but something just wasn’t clicking. That November, in the first meeting after that disappointing season we made winning a Big Ten championship our goal for next season. We talked about it almost everyday throughout spring. We changed everything about our program, fitness, practices and coaching procedures all got a lot stricter, but it was necessary. So to accomplish that was a big deal for our team; we wanted to prove that we could achieve our goal, and for the seniors it was an amazing feeling to be able to leave the program in a better place than previous years."
What is the best piece of advice you wish someone had given you while you were a youth soccer player?
"I wish someone would have stressed how important your time as a youth soccer player is for your personal and technical development - it really is the pinnacle time for development. This may seem obvious, but sometimes as a kid all you focus on is winning games, getting to practice, not getting yelled at or not being late, instead of going in everyday and really trying to step outside your comfort zone to get better. Club soccer is the time to try new things and push yourself to the next level, because once you get older you’ll see that there is a kind of learning block for certain skills, and once that time is past it is very difficult to learn new things. So I would say everyday at practice try something new because even if you think you can’t do them, now is literally the best time for you to learn!"
When you look at FC Wisconsin Eclipse now, what do you think about?
"I think about a high level of club soccer and a place where I know youth players are getting better. I definitely think it is the best place in Wisconsin for youth development and exposure to the level of soccer expected if they want to compete at the college or professional level. It will show players what it takes to be the best and compete with the best. During summer when I worked UW camps, campers would often come up to me and ask how to become good enough to go to a school like Wisconsin. I would always respond with something along the lines of: get on a high-level club team where everyday you’re competing against players better than yourself. I would always urge campers to check out FC Wisconsin Eclipse because I know it’s one of the only places in Wisconsin where you are guaranteed to get better, and where you will see first-hand what it takes to play with the best."