DURHAM N.H. — To an outsider, the Oct. 23 match between the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (5-7-2, 3-3-1) and Binghamton University, is just a pivotal match in the America East. A win for the Wildcats would all but clinch a playoff spot, while a loss would make their road to the postseason all the more difficult.
But, for the seven seniors on the Wildcats’ roster, Oct. 23 is a goodbye to a stadium they’ve called home for years. This is especially true for three senior captains, Casey Peterson, Francesca Picicci and Cat Sheppard, who are grappling with the fact they’re leaving a sport they’ve loved dating back to their youth.
All three found soccer thanks to their fathers. For Peterson and Picicci, their fathers were their first coaches and nurtured a love that still lingers today.
“I started playing soccer when I was three. My dad was the coach, so he was always pushing for me to play, and I loved it. I loved every second of it,” Picicci said.
For Sheppard, her father hailed from England and brought his love for the game to America. Sunday mornings were spent nestled in front of the television watching the Tottenham Hotspurs play across the Atlantic. Thanks to her father, Sheppard also found her way in front of the net.
“I originally played the field then I tried out for my travel team and my Dad said, ‘Oh just bring gloves just so you can play goalie’,” she said. “I was like ‘Okay fine,’ and I have been a goalie ever since.”
Their love was only matched by their talent. All three moved away from their school teams to club teams during their teenage years. Their play there brought the attention of colleges, including UNH head coach Steve Welham.
When recruiting, Welham looks for three things: A good person, a good student, and a good soccer player. Following a disappointing loss to the University of Maine in the America East tournament in 2015, Welham said the team needed to change if they were going to succeed moving forward. Peterson and Picicci were a part of that change.
“We knew that we needed to change the cultural dynamics of our program. And the two that really came to the forefront in the 2017 recruiting class was Francesca Picicci and Casey Peterson,” Welham said.
Welham’s attention shocked both Peterson, a Virginia native, and Picicci, a New York native. Mainly because they didn’t know the school even existed.
“I heard my club coach bring something up about UNH and how Steve was interested and I kind of remember thinking I don’t even know where New Hampshire is,” Peterson said.
Once they arrived on campus for their first official visits, though, neither player could get the school out of their head or their heart.
“I remember walking around, and meeting some of the girls and I just turned to my Mom and saying this is where I want to go to school,” Peterson said.
It was also on that first official visit, Peterson and Picicci opened the first chapter in a book they hope to write together during their lifetime.
“That was the first time we ever met, before freshman year, and we instantly clicked. We haven’t left each other’s side since that moment,” Picicci said.
“I definitely would not be the person I am without her today, and she’s probably made the biggest impact on my life,” Peterson said about their friendship. “I know that in college you find friendships and you stick together, but like she and I are in for the long run.”
A year later, Welham found himself in Hamdon, Connecticut at a scouting event. At around five o’clock that evening, after nine hours of watching players run up and down the field, he was debating leaving. Then he saw a young goalkeeper walk out in a Tottenham Hotspur jersey wearing number 35 with “Cat” on the back.
“I’m like, alright, I’ll go stay for one more game,” Welham said. He ended up staying until eight o’clock that night, with the hopes of bringing Sheppard to the team.
Like Peterson, Sheppard fell in love with the campus at first sight, “I mean I know it’s corny, but you kind of get this feeling and you’re like, oh I need to be here.”
During their run with the Wildcats, the three have become mainstays in the lineup. Peterson has appeared in 64 games over the last five seasons. While she’s only tallied five points in her career she’s been a consistent, stabilizing force for the team. Picicci is just short of that mark herself, appearing in 60 games over the last five years. This latest and final season has been her best yet as she leads the team with five goals and eleven points, both career bests.
Likewise, Sheppard has been a dynamo dating back to her sophomore year when she earned the starting goalkeeper job. Through 31 starts, Sheppard has collected 14 shutouts, which ties her for the fourth-most in school history, 129 saves, and a 0.806 save percentage. In addition to that, her 0.99 career goals-against-average, is currently the best in the program’s 36-year history. A feat even she wasn’t aware of.
“I didn’t know that,” Sheppard said between a laugh. “Yeah, that’s awesome. I’m going to knock on wood too. I mean I couldn’t do goals against anything without the backline in front of me, so I’m glad Steve Welham recruited a very solid and strong backline in front of me to help me with that.”
Their individual feats have earned them honors off the field, as well. Peterson was named a captain in 2019, and has held onto the title for three years now; another first in the program’s history. Starting in the abbreviated spring 2021 season, Picicci joined her as a co-captain, a nod she’s carried over to this fall season. Sheppard joined the duo this fall, solidifying a triumvirate that’s led a young team comprised of 16 underclassmen.
“The things that happen off the field, in the locker room during training sessions, Casey, [Picicci] and Cat are just instrumental leaders in that department with this really young team,” Welham said.
While their Wildcat careers may come to a close at the end of the month, the three said there are lessons they’ll carry with them past Durham.
All three have learned to appreciate the moment; to tackle every practice as if it were their last. This realization can be thanked in part to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The pandemic pushed the 2020 season to the spring of 2021 and deprived Peterson and Picicci of a traditional senior season. If not for the NCAA’s decision to grant seniors an extra year of eligibility, their March 28, 2020 match against Binghamton would’ve been the last game of their collegiate careers unbeknownst to them.
Picicci said the decision to return wasn’t a question.
“I love the girls, I love the team, I love the school, it was a no-brainer to just come back and play one more year. I was given the opportunity to do it, and I don’t regret it at all. I love it.”
Due to a job offer from a company she interned with over the summer, the decision wasn’t as easy for Peterson, who had to choose whether to start her work career or conclude her collegiate career. Luckily she was able to find a middle ground that allowed her to work part-time and return to the soccer pitch.
“I always knew I would regret it later in life if I didn’t come back and finish what I wanted to do,” Peterson said. “Everything just kind of worked out, and I’m able to do it all, which is kind of what I wanted.”
Welham himself is glad the two got to write their own endings. Not just for the team’s benefit, but for their benefit.
“That’s the biggest thing. For them to come back to finish on their terms, has been huge,” he said. “Now it’s up to us how we want to drive this thing home, and we control our own destiny. To be able to see that and know how much it means to them, it’s been wonderful.”
As senior day approaches, Picicci admitted she hasn’t considered this is the end of the line. That finality will not creep into the back of her mind until there’s nothing left on the schedule except empty days without the sport that’s defined her life.
“It’s probably not going to cross my mind until two weeks after our last game, whenever that may be. I don’t think I’ll process it until I’m sitting in my room doing nothing, and not going into practice, and it’ll probably hit,” Picicci said.
Overall, Peterson alongside her co-captains wouldn’t change anything about their journey with the team.
“It’s meant the world [to be a Wildcat]. I couldn’t imagine going to any other school and having had an impact at this school and people have had on me,” Peterson said. “I think it’s probably the best decision that I’ve ever made. I’m so grateful to have picked this school and have the people that have helped me throughout the last five years.”
Photos courtesy of UNH Athletics and Dave O’Brien