Walpole native and Millis High alum Olivia Zitoli (far right) won the Division III national title with the William Smith women's soccer program.
On August 30, the William Smith women’s soccer team lost its season opener 2-1 against the College of New Jersey. The Herons would not lose another game this season.
William Smith went on to win the Division III national title with a 2-0 victory over Trinity in San Antonio in December. It was the first national title for the program since 1988 and at the heart of the Herons success was former Millis High standout Olivia Zitoli.
“I just fell down because it was so much to handle,” said Zitoli about the reaction to the final whistle in the championship game. “I’m home on break and it’s just now starting to sink in.”
She continued, “Sometimes it seems like the longest road ever…after four months, your body has taken a beating and it was just emotional and exhausting. It’s just a whirlwind of emotions and you don’t fully grasp what you’ve done in the moment.”
Zitoli, who won basketball and soccer state titles in 2009 at Millis, was not just a squad member, but also a senior captain and a rock in the heart of a defense that recorded a program record 21 shutouts in 25 games this season. For her extraordinary efforts, Zitoli was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) DIII All-American, Liberty League Player of the Year and the National DIII Player of the Year.
“They were awards that I never thought that I would achieve,” said Zitoli. “When I came out of Millis, I was a really solid athlete but I wasn’t the most technical or talented soccer player. I just thought that I would contribute to my team and I never really thought that I would become an All-American.”
She added, the shake of her head audible over the phone, “Even when I got it…I just couldn’t believe it.”
William Smith head coach Aliceann Wilber, who has been in charge for 34 years and amassed over 480 wins, was also surprised by her star defender’s award haul, but she had no doubt that it was deserved.
“Those are difficult achievements for her to reach and I don’t think any of us carried the individual stuff through the season,” said Wilbur from January’s NSCAA convention in Philadelphia. “People started paying attention to the defensive effort and how consistently we were doing it and Olivia was certainly the fulcrum.”
“Her influence on the team had a tremendous impact on how far we went and how we did it,” she added.
Zitoli modestly, and with sincerity, passed along much of the credit to her teammates for the accolades that have come her way this season.
“I keep telling people that I wish I could share it,” she remarked. “My position in the back line and all the shutouts and the different stats that we got was really a reflection on the back line and on the team as a whole. I know that I was a senior and the most experienced, but I couldn’t have done it without everyone else.”
This was the third trip to the Final Four for the Herons in Zitoli’s four-year career and both coach and player admitted that, coming into the season, the national title was no more than a token goal for the team. But, once the Final Four had been reached, the Herons set their sights squarely on bringing home the prize and to do it for all those that had not been able to win it during their careers.
“A lot of our team this year was juniors who had been there in their freshman year with a huge senior class and we fell short,” Zitoli explained. “They had to watch their captains and leaders and it was devastating. We wanted to kind of win it for all the people who had fallen short in the previous years.”
Even in the midst of winning a national title, Zitoli always looked back at her time in Millis for inspiration. “When I went to the Final Four this year, I had the sense of ‘I’ve been here before’ and it wasn’t because I had been there with William Smith, but because I have been in big games with Millis where we were even more of an underdog.”
Former Millis High star
Olivia Zitoli was named the DIII Player of the Year.
Seeds for success were sown in Millis
“There are very few Olivia Zitoli’s out there and that’s why there are very few national champions,” said Chuck Grant, Director of Student Affairs at Millis High. “We were very lucky to have her here at Millis.”
The feeling is mutual.
“There still hasn’t been anything in my life that has meant as much to me as those two titles in Millis,” Zitoli asserted. “My experiences in Millis were unlike anything that I’ve ever had and those titles and those teams and those coaches and that community…I still reflect on that a lot because I just credit those coaches and those teammates for so much of my success.”
The experiences that Zitoli shared with Millis almost did not happen. A resident of Walpole, Zitoli went to school in her hometown through sixth grade. Because of her age, she repeated sixth grade and made the decision to go to Millis Middle School where her father had been principal for more than a decade. It was a decision that she never regretted and several years later would be a momentous decision for Millis High girls’ athletics when the Class of 2010 began winning titles.
After the volleyball team took home a state title, the basketball team, with Zitoli a prominent member, brought home a title in 2009. That fall, the girls’ soccer team added a second championship to her high school resume. Grant marveled at that amount of great athletes that were part of that class and credits Zitoli for being one of the leaders that drove the Mohawks to success.
“It was her influence during those summer fitness camps that they run,” Grant noted. “She wasn’t a very vocal leader, just a good captain. She did the extra that puts her into the upper echelon -- it’s no fluke.”
Zitoli’s college coach saw similar qualities during her four years with the Herons. “She’s mature beyond her years for one thing and her ability to influence her peers for better behavior, better performance, better perspective -- you can’t put a value on that,” said Wilbur. “She set the tone for the work rate and she’s just such a great leader.”
Wilbur added, “How she managed the team off the field, the guidance that she gave and the role-modeling that she did, we’re going to miss all of that.”
Ever modest about her achievements, Zitoli was quick to praise the coaches and players that influenced her during high school, but as Wilbur noted about her first meeting with Zitoli four years ago, “We can all recognize something special when we’re in front of it and she’s just a very special person.”
Zitoli stressed, “I learned so much from the coaches at Millis about team chemistry, work ethic, and leadership and I think a lot of that, when I went to college, I was really lucky. I realized even more so after the fact how special my high school experience was when I talked to my college friends.”
Olivia Zitoli and her William Smith teammates celebrate the DIII national title.
Developing a national championship leader
On the night before the Final Four began in San Antonio, the NSCAA hosted a banquet to honor each of the teams that would be competing. One person from each team was chosen to represent his or her school and give a speech. It should be no surprise at this point that Zitoli represented William Smith.
After several standard fare speeches -- filled with references to the achievements of teammates or the qualities of particular coaches -- Zitoli walked to the podium and addressed the crowd. Watching the speech on YouTube, Grant commented that her words made him even more proud than the title that would be won two days later.
“It’s always about her teammates,” said Grant. “She’s a big picture person and has a great head on her shoulders. She realized early on that if ‘we’ win then accolades would come to the leader.”
“Mine stood out because it was a little bit longer and it focused on the over-arching theme of athletics and leadership and being a Division III student-athlete,” explained Zitoli. “I talked about coaches and how they helped us with our moral growth and how the lessons that we learned in athletics will help us beyond soccer.”
Leadership is a word that comes up in every conversation about Zitoli. When asked what makes her such a great captain and team leader, Grant replied, “She treated sophomores like she did seniors. She made everyone feel comfortable and part of the team and accept their roles on the squad to work together as a whole.”
Wilbur was asked the same questions and responded, “She doesn’t have an ego, so the team is happy to follow her thoughts and her suggestions because they always trust that it’s for ‘the we, not the me.’ She can be very compelling.”
Zitoli has worked for years on her leadership skills and does not hesitate to say that she embraces that role on the team and works hard so that her teammates will embrace her and the message that she tries to get across.
“For me, the most important thing overall was my teammates and having a strong relationship with them,” Zitoli said. “I think I gained a lot of respect from my teammates because I was consistent and because I cared a lot about what my teammates were going through on and off the field.”
“In Millis and at William Smith we were blessed to have great people. We were very talented, but we had some of the best people too.”
|D3 National Player of the Year Olivia Zitoli.
Putting Millis on the map
During her winter break, Zitoli returned to the high school where it all began and visited her former basketball team. She proudly pointed out that the current crop of Mohawks were still doing the same pre-game ritual that was started by the 2009 champions.
For Zitoli, even a national title pales in comparison to her time walking the halls at Millis.
“I walk into that school and my heart aches,” she admitted. “It’s home; it’s so comfortable. I feel like every lesson that I ever learned happened there.”
“It’s something that I think about all the time -- honestly all the time -- about how fortunate I was and just how lucky I was to go to Millis and to have those athletes when I went.”
Grant marveled, “For a small school to be a steppingstone to that level of achievement and then she set the standards for the school. In fact, it’s something that we share with the whole [Tri-Valley League].”
Zitoli concluded, “It was great to be a part of getting Millis back on the map because they had some rough years. We made a statement that it can be done and that we don’t always have to be an underdog because we’re small.”
Story was originally published in Millis/Medway Community Guide by Hometown Weekly Publications.
Millis took home the 2009 state title in soccer.
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Zitoli)