The Rice University commit wants to get her younger teammates more involved this season.
Some 134 goals later, Natalie Gorji's career is approaching a conclusion.
The Out-of-Door Academy senior girls soccer forward started playing on the varsity team midway through her seventh-grade season. She scored three goals in ODA’s 4-0 district title win against Saint Stephen’s Episcopal later that season.
This season, Gorji said, she is intentionally taking a backseat in the goal-scoring department. ODA coach Bill Unzicker decided to play her in the midfield against offensive-minded opponents, giving the Thunder a needed defensive boost. Even when she plays forward, Gorji wants to give the team’s younger players, like eighth-grader Abbey Burwood, a chance to shine.
“I got to 100,” Gorji said. “That was a big goal of mine. Now I'll mostly play the midfield and try to (feed) balls to them so they can finish them off.”
There are three middle schoolers on the Thunder, plus five freshmen. Gorji said she uses her experience of playing at their age to give them advice. Sometimes it is tactical. Other times, it is as simple as a reminder for them to keep their heads up after a loss. Bonding activities like “Secret Santa” allow the team to get close.
Next year, Gorji heads to Rice University, where she will pursue a degree in sports management in addition to playing soccer. Gorji said sports management is a fun intersection of her interests in finances and, of course, sports. Rice has one of the top sports management programs in the country, Gorji said. That was one reason for her interest. The other was new Rice coach Brian Lee, who came to the Owls in March after 10 years at Louisiana State. He took the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament six times and won four West division titles in the Southeastern Conference.
Unzicker said he is going to miss Gorji’s scoring prowess, but everyone is excited about the next wave of ODA stars. That includes Burwood and freshman defender Sydney Opstal, the sister of 2019 ODA grad Madison Opstal, who now plays for Wake Forest. Gorji said Sydney Opstal already has a commanding presence on the field.
While Gorji is focused on the rest of the season — she said the Thunder have a chance to compete for a district title — she also thinks about the end of her ODA career coming soon.
“We play different teams and I’m like, ‘Oh, this could be the last time we're playing this team or that team.’" she said. "I think on Senior Night it will really hit me. It's definitely sad when I think about leaving. I've been playing for so long on this team. Obviously, I'm a senior now, but I have younger friends and it's been sad every year watching the older people go. Now that’s going to be me. I've learned how to be a better leader on the field and senior year has allowed me to express that. It's definitely been a fun ride.”