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Aug, 2020

ISC Alum Kimberly Ito Bounces Back from Injury to Lead at VCU

Kimberly Ito has been a standout midfielder at VCU since 2017, making 40 appearances for the Rams.  2019 was the only setback of her collegiate career as she suffered a serious injury that kept her off the field.

“It's definitely been a challenge,” Ito said. “It was hard for me because I'd never had like a serious injury like that before.  I wasn't able to run or really put any weight on my ankle for a few months and then having to go to PT and then slowly up to running, jumping, and cutting.  It's definitely been a challenge.  But I definitely had the right support around me. That made things a lot easier in my recovery and returned to play a lot smoother.”

Ito’s recovery has been complicated by the global pandemic, further delaying her return to the field.  The Hudson, Ohio native was ready to play this fall, but VCU made the decision to move soccer to the spring for obvious safety reasons.   

“I think the uncertainty has been challenging and I'm sure I'm definitely not alone in that,” Ito said. “It's difficult to not really know your plans, what's going to happen with school and soccer and everything going on.  I definitely know that we have an amazing coaching staff and we're all going to make the best of whatever situation happens.  But it's definitely been difficult to stay motivated for training and to stay on top of school and online classes and everything with all the changes that have been going on and all the adaptations that we've had to kind of go through.  But hopefully this spring, we are able to play and I know we are excited to still have the prospect of the season.  So, we'll definitely keep working hard and see what happens.”

The uncertainty would be tough for any athlete, but Ito has risen above the obstacles and remains focused on her goals.

“I think my goals are just to be able to step on the field and help the team in whatever ways I can on and off the field,” Ito said. “I want to be able to lead by example, being a senior now and helping the younger players to get acclimated and handle the challenges of playing college soccer.  I think we have a really talented team and we just need to step out there and do what we do best, just have a fun last season with my friends and go out there, do my best, and have no regrets at the end of the day.”

VCU plays in the ultracompetitive Atlantic 10 Conference.

“The conference is definitely challenging,” Ito said. “There's a lot of really good teams and they come from all over.  We have teams from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, obviously Virginia, and D.C.  All the teams have a lot of very good players on them.  Every year you never know who's going to start winning games and who's going to do well.  It's really exciting from that standpoint, having that level of competition really keeps you focused and accountable.  There's really no room for complacency for any team because really anyone can come out and win because they definitely comparable.  It will definitely be a challenge, but a good one.”

Ito’s success in Richmond has left her with no regrets over her choice of college.  

“I definitely loved VCU as soon as I saw the campus,” Ito said. “I thought it was a good fit academically. They have a lot of different majors and different programs.  And at the time, I was set on doing engineering but I switched to kinesiology, pre-PT, or pre-PA.  And the school allowed me that flexibility.  The athletics and the facilities were impressive and it was just a good fit with the team and with the coaches.  I like their style of play a lot.  And it's just been a great experience.  All the girls are incredibly kind and incredibly talented.  It’s been a lot of fun just to be able to play in a competitive environment, but also one that does operate like a family.  Overall, it’s been a great experience.”

Ito has also been stellar in the classroom and has big plans after college. 

“I definitely plan on going to graduate school either in physical therapy or to become a physician assistant,” Ito said. “I definitely will continue playing soccer since it's been a lifelong passion of mine and it's just been something that I've loved and enjoyed ever since I was little.  I definitely will keep playing and definitely will be going to graduate school.”

Ito’s resiliency, strength, and determination comes from a strong foundation she received as a youth player at Internationals SC.

“Internationals was definitely the backbone of my youth soccer career,” Ito said. “I grew more there than anywhere else I played.  They really instill professionalism, focusing on both our academic performance as well as our athletic performance.  They stress individual responsibility, getting what you need to get done and taking accountability for your decisions and your actions. You go to practice every day trying to play perfect.  Because how you practice is how you're going to play in a game and putting in the work when no one's watching.  Training every day was like an ECNL game.  It was like you're playing with the best players and some of the best players in the whole country.  You really have to step it up every day that you go out on the field, whether in games and practices.  I was blessed to be able to play for a club like Internationals competing in the league like the ECNL because it allowed me exposure that I don't think you’d get anywhere else in Northeast Ohio.  You get college coaches and national team scouts every time we had a showcase, every time we had a game.  I developed as a player and as a person being able to play under high-pressure situations and being able to strive for consistency.  I really credit Internationals for really helping me every step of the way.  I really don't think I would be where I am without that experience.”

Ito also pointed out the influence of former VCU assistant coach Scott Letts. 

“Scott Letts definitely had an impact for me,” Ito said. “He ended up leaving the end of my freshman year, but he was the one that recruited me and the one I reached out to during the whole process, like when I was trying to choose a school.  I really appreciated the relationship that we had for the time he was there.  He was a very good coach.  He was always willing to help us with extra training and extra work. But all the coaches at VCU are really good.”

VCU women’s soccer head coach Lindsey Martin was quick to compliment Ito and her contributions to the program.

“Kimi has brought focused energy and enthusiasm since day one at VCU,” Martin said. “Her playmaking abilities and high pressure defending made her an immediate contributor on the field for our program.  She suffered a setback last season with an ankle injury that took her entire junior year, but we have high hopes that she will be able to contribute again this year.”

Zdravko Popovic, founder and president of Internationals SC, was another major influence on Ito’s career. 

“He really showed me the discipline and the kind of hard work and the work ethic that you needed to have to succeed in soccer and in life,” Ito said. “He was like my second father and anything that I needed I could come to him for help.  If I was struggling in school or needed help with the recruiting process, he was amazing.  We worked one-on-one to figure out schools that were a good fit academically and athletically.  I still try and go visit him and stay in touch when I'm in town.  He’s definitely the one that had the biggest impact.”

Popovic was quick to compliment Ito’s work at the club.  

"Kimi is the kind of player and player I just love to coach,” Popovic said. “Not only is she talented, but she has a higher level of discipline, respect, and maturity in her approach to athletics, academics and how she interacts with others.  Her vision, technical ability, and engine helped her become a top-level player in our club and in the ECNL as a whole.  Her work ethic and passion were always evident in the field whether it was a game, training, or fitness.  You would always count on Kimmy to give 110% and raise the level for others around her.   I am so happy and proud of her success and thrilled to see that she plans to continue her education in grad school.  We wish her all the best during her senior year at VCU."  

Ito also had the benefit of playing in the WPSL for multiple seasons.

“I played WPSL for the last three years,” Ito said. “And I was supposed to play last year.  The WPSL is different because all of the local players who have gone on to play college come back and have an opportunity to train with each other.  It helps you get fit and get sharp in order to go back for the college season.  It's very competitive because everyone is trying to get as prepared as possible.  It also is just like a fun time to interact with people that you don't normally see throughout the year and just kind of be able to have fun with it.”

The WPSL offers a high level of play during the summer.  While others took a break, Ito was working hard to grow and develop as a player.

“I think that WPSL is the level is pretty equitable to Division I soccer,” Ito said. “Players are coming from Division I schools, coming from really good programs, coming from top 25 programs, so it's definitely comparable to playing back at school, which is a really valuable asset.  Being able to train in that kind of environment makes it like you never really leave.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic also claimed her summer season in the WPSL.

“I did plan on playing this summer and having that canceled was definitely really disappointing,” Ito said. “I really loved the environment at our WPSL team and there's just some phenomenal players that come in and train.  I was very disappointed that we weren't really able to play this summer.  I was still getting back, but I was cleared for everything.  I was ready to go.”

Despite another setback, Ito is still poised to make a major impact on the field for VCU.  She’ll have a few more months to prepare for a spring season unlike any other.  Expectations are high for the program and Ito will be counted on every step of the way.    

Photo Credit: VCU Athletics

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