When Charlotte Stephens signed up for a goalkeeper's camp as a high school player back home in England, she had no idea a college soccer career was even a possibility.
But her performance over the course of that camp set in motion a journey to Milligan College, a place Stephens had never heard of. Now Milligan women’s soccer coach Lisa Buckley can’t imagine the program without Stephens guarding the woodwork for the resurgent Buffs.
“She had a great year for us last year, and I wondered if she could top that,” Buckley said. “The way Charlotte is playing right now is the best I’ve ever seen her play.”
Indeed, Stephens is closing in on the school record for saves in a career. The senior made three show-stopping saves in the early stages of a recent Appalachian Athletic Conference win over Columbia to help get the Buffs off to a 1-0 start in league play.
It is a remarkable story, especially when you consider all the pieces that had to be in place in order for Stephens to end up at Milligan in the first place. The remarkable chain of events started when Buckley reached out to an international recruiting service based in Scotland in search of a new goaltender.
The service Buckley used had served Milligan well in the past, connecting the school with standout players Daniel Ball and Lewis Grant. It just so happened that the service Buckley was relying upon to find a goalkeeper was the same one Stephens had contracted with to get her recruiting profile out to coaches in the U.S.
As Stephens contemplated a college career across the Atlantic Ocean, she said the support of her family was key in helping her embark on such a bold journey.
“It was a big step,” Stephens said. “My parents were so good in supporting me. They said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you have the support from home, it really helps.”
Stephens had been to the States before on vacations, but those jaunts had been to popular tourist havens like Orlando and Washington D.C. For Stephens and her family, Northeast Tennessee was a great unknown when Buckley finally reached out with a scholarship offer.
Fortunately for all involved, Buckley had taken a similar path from the United Kingdom to Milligan. Having played at the school before eventually becoming Milligan’s coach, Buckley was able to go a long way in easing the minds of Stephens and her parents.
“She knew a lot about what I’d experienced because she’d been in my shoes,” Stephens said. “She was able to answer a lot of questions because she’d been a student here once and a soccer player.”
Once the decision was made and the papers were signed, Buckley entered wait-and-see mode when it came to Stephens. There was no question that Stephens possessed the athleticism to adapt on the field, but adjusting to day-to-day life at Milligan was another matter entirely. Since Milligan is a Christian institution, Buckley said it can be hard to tell how a new recruit will fare.
“Milligan is not your typical college, so recruiting internationally can always lead to a little apprehension from a coach’s standpoint as to whether they’re going to fit in and understand what Milligan’s all about,” Buckley said. “I couldn’t have asked for better from Charlotte as far as the way that she’s adjusted to what Milligan is. She’s embraced it fully and completely.”
Stephens has always been a leader, but a 3-13-1 campaign in 2015 showed Buckley a lot about her goalkeeper’s character.
“We put Charlotte in some scenarios where it made her look bad,” Buckley said. “She was getting goals scored on her that were the rest of the team’s fault and she never had a chance on. But never once did her attitude waver. Never once was she pointing fingers or being mad at her teammates. Instead, she was just finding ways to try to lead better and lead in a new way.”
Stephens admitted that it was hard to keep herself motivated last season, let alone keep everyone else on the team moving forward. But she believes the tough lessons learned last year have helped fuel the Buffs during their 4-2 start to the new season.
“It may have not gone the way we wanted it to, but it was a learning experience,” Stephens said. “I think it’s made this year’s team stronger. We saw how hard it was losing last year, so now we have more drive.”
As she starts preparing for her life beyond soccer, Stephens will certainly take her experiences with her back home to England. No matter what she decides to do, Buckley believes she’ll be successful.
“Character is revealed when your back is against the wall,” Buckley said. “Charlotte’s character was revealed last year, and it’s great.”