Jenna Hellstrom channels former coach on the field


Junior forward, Jenna Hellstrom poses after stretching at practice at the Kent State Field House Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.

Dan Armelli

She can be seen at Zoeller Field running around like she’s been shot out of a cannon, or taking brutal hits, only wanting to come back seconds later and play just as hard. She can even be seen doing the “whip” before, during and after games. But mostly, junior forward Jenna Hellstrom can be seen scoring goals for the women’s soccer team.

Soccer wasn’t the obvious path for Hellstrom, who grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, about a four and a half hour drive northwest of Toronto. Sudbury is known more for hockey — a sport Hellstrom says her parents wouldn’t let her play — than it is soccer.

Hellstrom first started to get noticed for a regional team in Canada. The team led her to meeting the person she most looked up to while playing the sport: coach Kevin Roach.

“He saw me playing at around age 10, at a pretty low level,” Hellstrom said. “He thought I could develop into a lot better player, so he asked me to come try out for his competitive team. That’s where I started to grow as a soccer player…Unfortunately, he did pass away last year. I really looked up to him. He was an awesome coach. He wasn’t just a coach to me. He was someone that I was extremely close to — a family friend.”

Roach passed away at the age of 56 on Oct. 31 of last year, two days before the Flashes’ MAC tournament game against Ball State. Hellstrom, who is a ritual-orientated player, said she didn’t do anything different before that game. However, that didn’t mean it was an easy game to play.

“That was probably the hardest game for me out of any game, just because the soccer field’s where we had that relationship,” Hellstrom said. “Playing on that Sunday, everyone’s like, ‘come out and make him proud,’ which I really tried to. It was really hard though, just standing there listening to the National Anthem; just having thoughts about him because that’s where everything was with him was on the field.”

Hellstrom said everything that Roach, who suffered from diabetes, had to endure being on dialysis three times a week or more, pancreatic replacement (which his body rejected), and a leg amputation, inspired her to push through difficult situations.

In a story for the Sudbury Star, Roach was described as “fearless and he was feared on the field” by long-time friend and coach Larry Murphy. Hellstrom said she thought that was an applicable way of describing herself as a player.

“He taught me to push through everything, and obviously be smart about it,” she said. “As I was getting older, obviously I got more injured, just because of the type of player I am. A lot of (my toughness) just came from just growing up with him as a coach.”

It’s not hard to recognize how Hellstrom plays. Her teammates are able to get a close look at the player on the field and the person off it.

“I just had this conversation with (redshirt sophomore Donavan Capehart),” Hellstrom said. “She’s like, ‘Jenna, if I didn’t know you off the field, I would think you’re just this crazy person, always wanting to fight people,’ which obviously I don’t want to be known for. But I feel that’s just a big part of my game. Beating people all the time like on 50/50 balls.”

Capehart, who transferred from Ohio State before the 2014 season, said she knew Hellstrom was going to be a great player the first time they practiced together.

“She’s the fastest one. She’s the hardest working one. She’s everywhere on the field,” Capehart said. “There’s never a dull moment at any time with her. Playing soccer with her, it’s really great because she’s everywhere.”

One of the people who best recognizes Hellstrom’s difference in attitude on and off the field is junior midfielder Abbie Lawson, who bonded with Hellstrom during their official visits.

Lawson said Hellstrom is obviously very serious about soccer, but carries herself differently off the pitch.

“You can still see her commitment to the sport, but she definitely has a fun, goofy side that kind of lets her release any tension she has from practice or a game,” Lawson said. “I think that kind of helps her balance out and let loose.”

Hellstrom is also aware of her different demeanors, but no matter where she is, she keeps her desire to win.

“I’m really competitive, which is why I’m like that on the field,” she said. “And I hate losing, I hate it.”

It’s a big cliché in sports for players to say they hate losing. But Hellstrom is careful not to use corny, hackneyed phrases. When she says she hates losing, she says it with intensity — she means it.

“I think what impresses me the most about Jenna is her will to never stop,” said senior defender Madison Helterbran. “She’s a player that will just keep on going at you and literally won’t ever stop. That’s why I believe that she’s the great player that she is.”

But there was a point where Hellstrom was forced to stop. Her ACL tear in 2011 could not have come at a much worse time.

“With provincials and everything, that’s where everyone saw you play,” Hellstrom said. “Between your grade-10 and grade-11 year, sophomore/junior year, that’s when all the recruiting is done. That’s the time that I tore it; it was in April of my sophomore year.”

This dramatically altered her recruiting process, forcing her to be more of an advocate for herself. She spent a lot of time emailing schools to see if they had any interest in her playing for their respective teams.

“There were a lot of schools that found out when I did tear my ACL, they stopped talking to me, which is really unfortunate,” Hellstrom said. “Not that I regret coming to Kent, I love it here. There were big schools that just stopped talking. It affected (me) a lot. I’m a better player now than I was before I tore my ACL.”

Hellstrom said after most of the players around her committed to full scholarships, she came across Kent State on the Internet. From there, she contacted head coach Rob Marinaro and coach Pat Sweeney.

“They didn’t even see me play until after they offered,” Hellstrom said. “Obviously everything ended up turning out really good … I got ahold of them and I was like, ‘I want to come visit.’ They got right back to me and I visited the school. They talked to a few of my coaches that night, because they didn’t see me play. They just knew provincial and National Training Centre (NTC) are high-level (soccer leagues)… They made the offer, and I made the decision.”

Since Hellstrom’s arrival at Kent State, she’s gone through a position change, from attacking midfielder to forward, and has even played some fullback, her favorite position. But no matter where she plays, she keeps the same toughness she inherited when Roach coached her.

Hellstrom, whose motivation comes from the fear of getting cut at any moment when playing in the provincial program and NTC, says she’s even been told to tone it down throughout her collegiate career.

“Sweeney always says, ‘just try to live another day,’” Hellstrom said. “My freshman year was the worst. I got hurt a lot in practice, just because of the mentality of how I grew up playing provincials and NTC…Not that they don’t want me to go hard at practice, but they were just like, ‘Be safe. You don’t always have to go after every ball. You don’t always have to reach for everything.’”

Marinaro said learning when to go all out and when not to has just been part of Hellstrom’s maturation process.

“She’s really starting to figure it out,” he said. “Obviously we want to keep everybody healthy all season long, so you do have to make better decisions when you need to give it your all … But she’s always a player that brings the intensity, and that’s what you want. If anything, you want to tell people to tone it down versus ‘you need to pick it up.’”

Hellstrom considers her coaches her parents away from home since she’s so far away from Sudbury.

“I just go in their offices to talk about anything with them,” she said. “I just feel like (Marinaro’s) relationship with his team is really good … Him, Sweeney, and coach Abby (Richter). It’s more family oriented.”

Sudbury still isn’t far enough away to keep her parents from seeing their daughter thrive on the pitch.

“They’ve been really good throughout my whole college career,” Hellstrom said. “This year they came to every home game, which has been really good. It’s only 10 hours away. My dad hates missing a game so he convinces my mom every single time. Even for this weekend, hopefully we host (the MAC tournament game Sunday), my dad’s trying to get her up.”

The Flashes will learn if they hold a playoff game after their last regular season match today at 3 p.m. at Zoeller Field.

Dan Armelli is a sports reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].