St. James Academy alumna gets a shot with professional soccer league
by Shelia Myers
Special to the Leaven
A St. James Academy alumna had a dream come true when she was drafted to play in a brand-new national women’s professional soccer league.
Nia Williams, a 2009 graduate of St. James in Lenexa, was the fourth-round draft pick by FC Kansas City, one of the eight teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, formed in November 2012.
“It was probably one of the most surprising things that’s ever happened to me,” Nia said.
While surprised, Nia had an ace up her sleeve. An assistant coach for FC Kansas City had followed her career for years with more than just a passing interest. That coach was Huw Williams, her father.
The father-daughter duo holds none of the tension you would expect to find. In fact, Nia welcomes the opportunity to learn more from the best coach she’s ever had.
“My dad has been my coach since I was in second grade,” she said. “He’s taught me everything I know.”
A native of Wales, Huw Williams started playing professional soccer at age 14 when he played for the Blackburn Rovers in Wales.
After coming to the United States, Huw established himself as a highly regarded soccer coach, leading his teams to many regional, state and national titles and earning several “Coach of the Year” awards.
With his eye for talent, it was obvious to Huw that Nia had the ability to be a great soccer player.
“She had the coordination, the athletic ability and balance early on,” said Huw. “She’s always been fast.”
Nia excelled in many sports growing up, including softball and volleyball, but she decided to focus exclusively on soccer her freshman year at St. James.
Deacon Dana Nearmyer, archdiocesan consultant for evangelization and Catholic formation of youth, coached Nia all four years in high school and knew she was special.
“When I first met her, she was sweet and smart,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “Everyone said she was an incredible soccer player — fast and never diminished by her physique (Nia is 5 feet 4 inches tall).”
Nia helped carry the St. James Thunder to the state championships her junior and senior year.
“She’s a really skilled surgeon with a soccer ball,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “No one scored when she was in.”
Nia went on to play defender for the Missouri State Bears, establishing herself as a key set-piece organizer and setting team records for assists. At the same time, she won several academic awards, not an easy thing for a college athlete to do.
“She’s par excellence,” added Deacon Nearmyer. “She cares so much and works extra hard when things don’t come easy.”
An elementary education major with a math emphasis, she hopes to teach middle school math. But with spring training kicking off in March, she’s had to postpone her student teaching until the season is over in August.
Faith and family
While competition is a big part of Nia’s life, it takes a back seat to her faith, which was strengthened during high school at St. James.
“That high competition in high school makes you realize that everything needs to be centered around God. And you can’t separate it, because God gave you all those gifts and that’s how you’re able to participate in those sports and in those events,” she said.
Nia often led the team in prayer before and after practice.
Deacon Nearmyer teared up as he recalled the many times Nia offered prayers for her good friend and classmate, Brooks Wisdom, who suffered from a condition that took his life in August 2008, just before his sophomore year.
“I would push his wheelchair and we had conversations. And we went to the first dance together,” said Nia. “It was a good time. He was in all my classes. I was close to him at different times.”
That ability to accept people for who they are comes from the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
“She was always warm and she never said ‘no’ to anyone,” Nia said. “I read this quote book [of hers] a lot. She talks about smiling. That’s one of my biggest things — that a smile can brighten everyone’s day. It’s important to have a smile even if you’re down.”
She also values family. Her parents divorced when she was six, but each remarried, surrounding Nia with a supportive extended family. Her cousins are her best friends, and both grandfathers play a big role in her life.
Her Welsh heritage is also a source of pride. Annual visits to her paternal grandfather in Portmadog, Wales, helped to hone her soccer skills.
“We would play [soccer] all the time in the back of my grandpa’s house, and in the garages and on the beaches,” said Nia. “There were always soccer games going on. That’s one of the biggest things I loved.”
The big league
Though many teenagers abandon their faith after high school, Nia did not. Her two college roommates are Catholic, as are most of her teammates.
“One of my roommates goes to daily Mass a lot and when I can, I go with her,” she said. “We have a Bible study on our soccer team [at Missouri State] as well.”
She knows that can change when she goes pro, but she’ll work hard to make room for her faith.
“I would ask people, especially if we’re in a new city, if anyone wants to join me [for Mass],” said Nia.
She’s also looking forward to facing off against top-level players, like two-time Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach of the Western New York Flash.
“I’m extremely excited and so up for the challenge,” said Nia. “I hope I get the opportunity to do that. But it will be different than what I’ve done before. The level of playing will be so much higher.”
With her dad nearby to offer coaching tips, she has nothing to fear.
Not even his criticism.
“I know he’s going to be honest with me no matter what,” Nia said. “It’s always been like that.”
FC Kansas City home opener
Who: FC Kansas City
vs. Portland Thorns FC
When: April 13 at 7:35 p.m.
Where: Shawnee Mission North Stadium, 7401 Johnson Dr., Overland Park
Tickets: start at $10 each (General Admission: $15 at the gate). To purchase tickets, call (855) 452-4625, ext. 7212. (Tickets are subject to availability.)