PHOENIX – When Isabella Struckman decided in May to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, she pictured herself going to classes, enjoying campus life and playing soccer for the MIT Engineers.
Struckman belongs to a Scottsdale family with deep soccer roots. Both of her older sisters played youth soccer in the Valley and both went on to play soccer and study engineering at MIT. Struckman planned to follow in her sisters’ footsteps.
Those plans changed dramatically in June when MIT informed Struckman that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school had deactivated the soccer program indefinitely and all fall classes would be conducted remotely.
The rising soccer star had to redirect on the fly.
“It was very sad to hear, especially because once they say you’re all online that obviously also means no soccer,” Struckman said. “I haven’t played a game since March and I won’t play another game until a year from now, which is awful for me.”
Despite the disappointment, the 19-year-old Struckman quickly adjusted to college life in Cambridge, Massachusetts – nearly 2,600 miles removed from her home and parents in Scottsdale.
“It’s been overall a very positive experience,” said Struckman, who played high school soccer at Scottsdale Chaparral.
Struckman studies engineering, plans to focus on bioengineering and possibly go to law school after she graduates from MIT. She described her classwork so far as “very hard,” and expects physics to be her most challenging course this semester.
Struckman shares an off-campus apartment with three roommates, two of whom are also soccer teammates. She credited her roommates and teammates with helping ease her transition to college life under these trying, pandemic-influenced circumstances.
The thing Struckman misses most is “my mom’s cooking” she said, especially an orzo pasta dish her mom prepares with feta cheese, broccoli and kalamata olives. “It’s amazing and it’s been like my favorite thing since I was a little kid. I would love a bowl of that right now,” Struckman said longingly.
One of Struckman’s former soccer coaches, Paul Taylor, argues that Struckman deserves all the credit for transitioning, under difficult circumstances, from home life in Arizona to college life in Massachusetts.
Taylor, director of the Phoenix Rising FC Girls Elite Clubs National League program, coached Struckman on and off for nearly eight years.
“With disappointment and failure come new opportunities and new horizons, and she’s a girl that will see that and enjoy that challenge – one that will embrace a difficult situation,” Taylor said in a recent interview with Cronkite.
“She competes at everything – at training, on the field and in the classroom,” Taylor said. “The commitment, and that relentless pursuit of excellence has allowed her to achieve what she’s done academically as well as on the field.”
Struckman’s attitude towards playing soccer reminds Taylor of the Brazilian superstar, Ronaldinho, who was well-known for his joyful, free-spirited approach to playing the game.
Coincidentally, Struckman later revealed that Ronaldinho is her favorite soccer player of all time.
“She played with a smile even though she was so competitive and relentless,” Taylor said, adding that his standout player always “played the game for the pure joy of playing the game.”
Under Taylor’s tutelage, Struckman was named the 2019-20 Gatorade Arizona Girls Player of the Year in June.
Taylor also helped Struckman’s two older sisters achieve success on the soccer field, having coached Sophia Struckman, 22, and Olivia Struckman, 24, at the youth level.
Like Isabella, both of the elder Struckman sisters went on to play soccer and study engineering at MIT.
Sophia graduated from MIT in May after majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. She won three NEWMAC (New England Women’s & Men’s Athletic Conference) soccer championships in her four years there.
Olivia graduated in 2018 with a degree in mechanical engineering after notching 14 goals and three assists during her senior year with the Engineers.
“The (Struckman) family and the girls have been ever-present in my tenure in Phoenix,” Taylor said.
After Isabella won the Gatorade award, Taylor wrote: “I know that Bella will share this honor with her sisters and parents who have shaped her into an amazing young lady. Bella like her sisters, has a relentless desire to compete, an unmatched work ethic, and has always maintained a love for the game.”
Isabella credited her former coach and her former soccer club for their role in her achievements, saying “I think it was incredibly important that I had both Paul (Taylor) and the Phoenix Rising organization.”
Sophia Struckman echoed her younger sister’s sentiments about Taylor. “He’s really an amazing coach who cared so much about his players, which made it really fun to play for him,” Sophia said.
Sophia also complimented Isabella for her “spirited” approach to life, which she defined as a combination of enthusiasm, drive and determination that comes through pretty clearly in everything Isabella does.
Having received such support and encouragement from her former coach and her family, Isabella reflected on how she might encourage others looking to follow in her footsteps. Perhaps there is a younger version of the Struckman sisters kicking a ball around on a Valley soccer field, dreaming of a chance to pursue excellence in athletics and academics.
“Have fun. Focus on finding what you love. I think that’s what your childhood should be all about,” Isabella said. “Find out what you think is extremely fun and put a lot of work into it, because when you find something that’s fun and you work hard enough to become good at it, you can go a lot of places and you can have fun doing it.”