“I started playing soccer when I was about 4 years old,” says 17-year-old Linnea Yacovella. “I got more serious about playing at a competitive level by age 10. I remember vividly being at a Gopher game at age 12 and thinking, ‘I want to play here someday.’”
And thanks to her hard work, Linnea’s dreams are coming true. The current senior at East Ridge High School has earned an athletic scholarship to play for the Golden Gophers at the University of Minnesota starting this June. Linnea’s dad, Tom, says, “Linnea verbally committed to the University of Minnesota in March of her sophomore year and signed her National Letter of Intent to officially become a Gopher November 15, 2018.”
Tom and his wife Gabriella are proud parents, and with good reason. “Linnea made the varsity soccer team at East Ridge as an eighth grader and just completed her fifth year as a varsity player this past fall,” Tom says. She’s long been a leader of the team on and off the field, and her soccer talent has been recognized by sports-watchers all over the region and state.
Of course, as a senior graduating this month, Linnea has a lot on her plate. “It’s very challenging to manage both academics and athletics,” she says, “but I’ve always been of the mindset that school comes first. Sometimes it takes fitting schoolwork in wherever you can. I’ve done homework in cars, on buses, on planes and in hotel rooms. With so much time dedicated to academics and athletics, I have to expect that there will be times that it may impact my social life.” That dedication has paid off. Linnea is on track to graduate with honors, is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, played varsity basketball, plays guitar and volunteers at Regions Hospital, where her dad is a physician. In an age of super-specialization, Linnea’s well-rounded interests are refreshing. She says her favorite school subjects are math, science and art.
And despite her extremely full schedule, Linnea is thrilled for what’s to come. She says she can’t wait to play for her “dream school, the University of Minnesota, and wear the maroon and gold.” She adds a hearty “Ski-U-Mah!”
Like a lot of kids, Linnea started playing soccer casually. When her parents signed her up for the sport, they did so with the intention of just broadening her horizons. Tom says, “Honestly, I think we just thought Linnea should be exposed to as many sports as possible and felt she should give soccer a try.”
Linnea started playing basketball in first grade and continued to play until her sophomore year in high school. But soccer had quickly become her thing, and the more involved with the sport she got, the more potential she showed.
“We had a few fellow soccer parents and coaches tell us Linnea was talented enough to play Division I soccer when she was about 10 years old, but it seemed so far off at the time,” Tom remembers with a smile. “We are beyond proud of Linnea for her determination, passion and dedication and for all the sacrifices she’s made along the way to follow her dream of playing for her hometown Gophers. What impresses us the most is how she has handled the success and recognition with such humility and grace.”
And that success and recognition is very real. Linnea was named a varsity captain at East Ridge for her junior and senior seasons, and was a Star Tribune All-Metro Team and Pioneer Press Player of the Year finalist her senior year. Plus? She finished her career at East Ridge this year with 45 goals, the most in ERHS history. She also received a prestigious Athena Award from the Athena Program which recognizes female athletes.
Linnea is quick to credit her East Ridge team with a lot of her success. “My time at East Ridge was filled with many great memories with teammates that became more like family,” she says. “I would have to say my favorite memory is winning back-to-back Suburban East Championships as underdogs.”
Tim Bunnell, ERHS’s varsity head coach, has been working with Linnea since she was an eighth grader. “The greatest growth I have seen in her is her maturity and her understanding of her tactical role within the game,” he says. “She has always been a strong technical player, but over the last year, I have seen growth in her as a student of the game.”
Bunnell has been coaching locally for 20 years and loves seeing his athletes develop into stronger players. “As a high school coach, our role is much larger than instructing the athletic skills required to succeed,” he says. “We have a responsibility to help our athletes grow into happy and healthy young adults.
“Our practices tend to be fast-paced with elements focused on improving fitness, technical skills and tactical understanding,” Bunnell explains. “We also get input from our captains and team leaders on what they feel should be incorporated into training and building that into our sessions.”
Of course, sometimes it boils down to good ol’ school pride. Linnea says there’s “nothing better than playing for your school,” and adds that some of her favorite parts of high school were “developing friendships, discovering who [she is] as a person and playing under the lights at the East Ridge Nest.” She also has a deep, personal inspiration. “Before my grandfather passed away, I told him I would dedicate the rest of my soccer career to him,” she says. “Before every game starts, I put my hand over my heart in remembrance of him.” She also mentions longtime coach Mickey Denney Wright as a major influence in her soccer career.
What’s Linnea’s advice for young soccer players who are just starting to learn the game? “Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do,” she says. “Enjoy every moment, even the small ones, and play with passion.”
As graduation looms, Linnea says she has a lot to look forward to—“making life-long friends in college, being in a position to impact others’ lives in the field of healthcare, and playing soccer in the Big 10.” She adds, “I’d like to thank all my teammates and friends who have always supported me, the coaches who believed in me, and the ones that didn’t, and most importantly, my family. I would not be the person and player I am without all of [them].”
With so much obvious talent and technical acumen, lots of folks are wondering if Linnea plans to play soccer professionally. She says she’s open to it, depending on how her college career goes and what future opportunities might look like. In the meantime, her fans will be cheering wildly from the side of the pitch.