Jacobs: Lulek finds niche quickly with Hawkeyes

Amanda Lulek never expected to play big-time college soccer. And she certainly didn’t expect to be starting for a major college team as a freshman.

So how did the 2013 Geneva High School graduate find her way onto the field for the University of Iowa?

“Actually, Iowa found me,” Lulek explains. “I wasn’t really looking to go to a big school. … I was mainly focusing on small schools like Loras or Augustana.”

The largest school Lulek was looking at was Northern Illinois, but then the Hawkeyes came calling, asking her if she’d consider making the move to Iowa City.

“I just fell in love with the campus.” Lulek says, adding that the school also had the pre-physical therapy major she was interested in. “It just seemed like a really good fit for me.”

Those who remember the speedy Lulek’s high school days as a forward with the Vikings, making dangerous dashes deep into enemy territory, might be surprised to learn that Iowa has found her skills best suited to playing defense.

“It was a surprise to me,” Lulek admits. “During preseason, we had a scrimmage and they needed outside backs. … I guess they liked what they saw.”

Apparently.

She has played in all 18 matches this season for the Hawkeyes (12-5-1), and has started 15 of those. She’s averaging 80 minutes of playing time a match.

Lulek says she is “definitely” surprised that she was able to crack the starting lineup right away.

“I went into it with the mindset that that I’m going to have to work my butt off to get where I wanted to be,” she says.

She still gets to make occasional forays into opponents’ side of the field. She’s taken three shots this year and has assisted on a goal.

Iowa started the year with eight straight nonconference victories, but the Hawkeyes are just 4-5-1 in Big Ten play.

“It has been up and down in the Big Ten,” Lulek said. “Some of our losses probably could have been prevented, but we learned from each one.”

Last weekend was a perfect illustration of the type of year it’s been for Iowa. On Friday, the Hawkeyes knocked off 16th-ranked Penn State, 3-2.

“It’s the first time Iowa has beaten them in a long time, so it was a great, great win for us,” Lulek notes.

But on Sunday, the Hawkeyes lost at home to Ohio State, 3-1. Like Iowa, the Buckeyes (10-5-3, 4-4-2) are stuck in the middle of a big pack in the league standings behind Nebraska (14-3-1, 9-1) and Michigan (14-2-1, 8-1-1).

Iowa fell to the Huskers in Lincoln, Neb., on a late goal, 2-1, and lost at home to the Wolverines by the same score.

The Hawkeyes wrap up the regular season Saturday with a home match against Purdue. A win could give Iowa as high as a fifth seed in the Big Ten Conference Tournament that starts Wednesday in Champaign. A loss against the Boilermakers could end Iowa’s season, but Lulek is hoping the Hawkeyes are among the eight teams that qualify for the league championships.

“For the tournament, we’ll just have to play it day by day… just take it one step at a time and see where it takes us,” she says.

Lulek says classes are going well.

“It gets stressful when we have to travel a lot, but the professors really work with us,” she says. “It’s all about how much effort I put into it.”

Her interest in physical therapy as a possible career stems from her high school days.

“At Geneva, I liked the athletic trainers there,” she said. “They helped me out with so many things.”

But the rigors of soccer eventually led her to seek physical therapy.

“My physical therapist did a lot for me,” Lulek says. “I thought it would be cool to interact with people that way and help people recover from injuries.”

With only two seniors on the roster, the Hawkeyes are counting on Lulek and a bevy of other underclassmen to stay healthy, help them get out of the middle of the pack and become a force in the Big Ten for years to come.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” Lulek says. “I can’t wait to see what the next three years bring me.”

•Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To suggest local college athletes deserving recognition, email him at mngeditor@yahoo.com.