Sept. 17, 2004
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Junior All-American Leah Gallegos had a dream season in 2003. The Los Angeles native was named a consensus All-American and All-ACC selection. She established new marks for goals (18), game-winning goals (7), multi-goal games in a season (5), shots (109) and shots on goal (60). Her 39 points were the second-most ever recorded by a Seminole player in a single season and she tied an FSU record with four goals in a game and eight points in a contest versus FAU. Gallegos produced throughout the season as she recorded points in 12 of FSU’s 26 games and six of the games came against NCAA Tournament teams. Yet few know how close that dream season came to never even getting started. Only Leah’s teammates and family know how close she came to leaving FSU after just one semester in Tallahassee.
“I think I was so homesick because of how close I am with my family,” said Gallegos. “When I am home I am all about family. I spend almost every minute with them and not just my immediate family. I have such a great extended family. My life style is a lot different because so much of my life at home revolved around my culture. That made it so difficult to be in Tallahassee. Being without them made it the hardest year of my life. I had so many expectations both in the classroom and on the field and I had to do it without my family by my side. Even the little things like doing laundry were tough freshman year.”
While Gallegos was threatening freshman records for goals, assists and points in 2002, off the field she was suffering. Her roommate and fellow Californian Shannon Coe would barely leave their dorm room. They spent most of their time away from soccer and school dreaming about getting back to their families in California.
“Both of us wanted to leave,” said Gallegos. “We talked about leaving a lot that semester. It was not that we didn’t love Florida State but we missed our families so much. We thought it would make such a difference if we were closer to home.”
While Gallegos suffered behind a closed dorm room door in the fall, things got even worse in the spring. As homesick as Leah was, she still had her love of soccer to fill her days but when soccer tailed off that next semester, things got really bad.
“Spring was the toughest,” recalls Gallegos. “In the fall I was homesick but I had my team and soccer was there almost everyday. That kept me going. In the spring there was less of all of those things and I had more time to think about how much I missed my family. I started feeling more and more like I had less here.”
That feeling was shared by Coe and led her to ask for her release, which she was granted. At that point Gallegos thought it was time for her to go as well. She approached head coach Patrick Baker about transferring closer to home.
“I told coach Baker that I was going to leave as well,” said Gallegos. “He told me that he had big plans for me in the offense next year and that I was a part of what he envisioned being a great team in 2004. He didn’t expect me to want to leave and asked me to stick it out for another year. I was so sad at that point. I was still confused and didn’t want to make a decision I would go on to regret for years to come.”
“When I heard rumors she wanted to leave I told her she had to give it a chance,” said Baker. “She had to give us the spring and the fall to see if the adjustment would be any easier. She needed to get a whole different feel for what we are about and what school is about. I will never forget at the end of the spring when I talked to her about the commitment we were going to make to her and the commitment I wanted back in return.”
After talking with Baker, Gallegos was more confused than ever. She was weighing a huge decision that would affect her future and was being torn up by being so far from home and the prospects of returning to school without Shannon here to comfort her.
“She (Shannon) made me so much more comfortable with everything that first year,” said Gallegos. “It was such a culture shock coming here. Everything was different and if I were here alone it would have been a disaster. The fact that she was always right by my side gave me a lot of strength due to her support.
“Eventually I prayed a lot and just felt like maybe I wasn’t meant to leave. I decided to hold out one more semester and told myself that I would leave if things didn’t get any better. At that point everything got really busy and I got overwhelmed with school and spring practice. I decided to stick it out through the fall because I was really scared of regretting my decision. Coach Baker said if I still wanted to leave after the fall he would do everything he could to help me find the best fit close to home.”
After making it through the spring semester Leah returned home for the summer and spent time with her family. She started to get comfortable with her decision to return to FSU mainly because she saw a light at the end of the tunnel that would bring her back to her family in California.
“I had a great summer at home with my family,” remembers Gallegos. “I was with my extended family almost every second. It was easier to come back that fall because my mentality was that I just had to make it through one more semester and then I could come back home. That gave me a more casual attitude coming back because I looked at it as a vacation where I got to play soccer then I will be back home forever.”
The ironic thing is that the attitude that she brought back with her due to the fact she knew she was leaving Florida State after the fall of 2003 is exactly what ended up keeping her in Tallahassee.
“Knowing I was going to leave after the fall changed my mentality,” said Gallegos. “Freshman year I didn’t really put myself out there with my teammates as far as getting to know them. I held myself back because I was so unhappy. I didn’t want to get to know anyone and I didn’t want anyone to get to know me. Sophomore year I decided to just be myself and not care about what anyone thought of me because I was going to be gone by the end of the semester anyway so who cares if the players didn’t like me. I didn’t hold back and that worked against my grand plans to leave FSU because I met a team I never really knew but had played with for a year. They were the most amazing people and I realized they could be my family in Tallahassee.”
“She deserves a lot of the credit for finding a comfort level,” said Baker. “The one thing that worried me was that she never invested in other teammates and once she started to invest in them they started to invest in her. It changed the whole complexion of what she was about and what our team was about.”
As Leah opened up to her teammates she started to find what she had been looking for all along. She didn’t need to be closer to her family in Los Angeles, she just needed more of a family atmosphere in Tallahassee.
“There was a huge difference from freshman to sophomore year,” said new roommate Teresa Rivera. “She opened up and started to let everyone in. She let down that barrier when she came back in the fall and let us all see how much fun she is and what a great person she is as well.”
When Coe left it seemed like what could have been the worst thing for Leah ended up being a blessing in disguise. With Shannon gone, Gallegos was forced out of her shell and that is when she really started to bond with Rivera and Alli Ferreri, her new roommates.
“Shannon and Leah were constantly together as freshmen,” recalls Baker. “They were a crutch for one another due to familiarity. When Alli and T were looking for a roommate I told them it would be very important for them to be with Leah and have time for her. I asked them to bring her into a new group. Now those three are inseparable and they are phenomenal together. You could quickly tell that was going to happen. They made a difference in Leah’s life.”
“When Shannon left it forced me to get out of my shell,” said Gallegos. “It allowed me to move in with T and Alli who were a huge help. They are the best roommates in the world. When Shannon decided to leave they were just so comforting to me and they suggested I live with them. I felt so comfortable around them. I was a little scared since they knew each other for almost 10 years and I was going to be a third wheel in a sense but I knew it was the right thing to do and that I would eventually fit in.”
Ferreri and Rivera deserve a lot of credit in Gallegos’ new found happiness at FSU. Instead of being surrounded by talk about how bad things were, Rivera and Ferreri brought a decidedly more positive outlook to Gallegos’ life.
“I think she got pretty down freshman year,” said Rivera. “She never left her room and was constantly thinking about leaving and how great that would be. Alli and I are so happy here at Florida State so when Leah moved in with us that positive energy was a huge difference. She realized this was a place she could enjoy.”
As important as Alli and Teresa were to Gallegos’ adjustment to Florida State, when it came down to it Gallegos’ love for the game and the team’s play on the field played a role as well. But for Gallegos it isn’t just about winning. The more you talk to her the more you realize it is about the team playing well because of chemistry and a family environment. She loves to win but wouldn’t be happy if it wasn’t a product of a team that was close and achieving something together as a group.
“I started to feel like I made the right decision to stay at the beginning of last season. I got to know my team; I met some amazing people and finally started to adjust,” recalls Leah. “Then on the field we really put it together and soccer has always been my passion so our success was a big factor. We played so well as a group and that made me so happy. The combination of the friendships I made and the beautiful soccer we were playing made my decision to stay so worthwhile.”
The decision not only paid off for Florida State but also for Gallegos. Last year her adjustment off the field led to her having the most successful offensive season on the field in FSU history. While it might be easy to connect the dots and infer that Leah played better because she was happier but that would mean her performance was tied to something personal and not to her team and that just isn’t Leah.
“I think I felt more comfortable as a sophomore but my success last year was a product of the whole team playing well together,” she said. “We became a team that played together so well. I don’t consider last year as a year where I won a lot of awards. It is the year when this team put everything together. That’s how I remember it. On and off the field we were so close and we accomplished so much together. We got so close to fulfilling every soccer players dream of winning a National Championship.”
While Leah may not think of it as they year she won a lot of awards, it is hard for anyone else not to see it that way. Gallegos was awarded 11 national, regional and conference honors last season but you would never know it talking to her. Just ask anyone who knows her.
“She is a great superstar and probably the best person for it. She is so humble and generous,” said Rivera. “The best story to exemplify that was when our new roommate Laura met Leah and got to know her. Then she came out to watch her play and was stunned at how good Leah was because she had never gotten any impression from Leah that she was an All-American or record setting goal scorer. She is just herself all the time.”
“The awards came so quickly for her last year. I am most proud of the way she handled all the individual success,” said Baker. “It was never about her. It was always about the team. Even at the All-American banquet, she wished her teammates could be with her. She wanted to share that moment with the people that are most special to her. The 26 players that train and play with her everyday.”
For Gallegos last season wasn’t about the goals or awards. It was about fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the College Cup. It was about her mom coming to see her play on the biggest stage in college soccer. It was about getting so close to achieving her dreams.
“It was the most outrageous feeling to be at the College Cup,” said Gallegos. “I remember watching it as a little girl and even the last few years. I would watch those players and think to myself how cool it would be to get there one day. I looked up to those teams. It was a dream come true being on that field.”
A dream that was close to never happening. If her coach hadn’t been so resolute in convincing her things would get better, if she hadn’t been willing to take a chance on staying and if Teresa and Alli hadn’t been such good friends, Leah may have never seen that dream materialize.
“I don’t regret anything,” said Leah with a big smile. “As upset as I was at the time, I am so happy that coach convinced me to stick it out. The best decision I ever made was to stay at Florida State. I am so happy now and had the best semester of my life that fall. I met incredible friends and am a part of an amazing soccer program. As much as I still miss my family, I have learned to deal with it. My teammates are now my family away from home. They treat me like a part of the family.”
“For Leah, it is wonderful to see her happy here,” said Baker. “We have given her a great opportunity academically and athletically and she has made the most of it in all areas and that is gratifying. As long as she is happy, I am happy.”And Leah’s happiness has brought happiness to not only her coach and teammates but to Seminole soccer fans everywhere.