As Valpo soccer junior Nicole Norfolk puts it, you usually only see a center back subbed off the field during a game if they make a bad mistake.
It’s safe to say Norfolk hasn’t made too many of those in her time at Valpo.
Norfolk has been a rock in the middle of Valpo’s back line since stepping on campus in the fall of 2019. With her anchoring the defense, the Beacons have posted two of their top defensive seasons in program history this calendar year and are on the verge of a potential Missouri Valley Conference regular season title when they step on the field Thursday.
Norfolk was a member of the starting lineup in her very first match as a freshman and has been named in the starting eleven in every match since then. She played every single minute of her first two seasons and set the program’s record for consecutive minutes played by a field player earlier this season. Not bad for someone who had a much smaller goal in mind when she first arrived at Valpo.
“Heading into my freshman year, I knew the team was traveling to New York early in the season, and I remember being worried over the summer that I wouldn’t be on that travel squad for that trip,” Norfolk said. “I didn’t want to have to stay back in Valpo while the team was on the road. So that summer, I made sure I was as in shape as I could be and I was getting plenty of work on the ball, to best prepare myself and make sure I would get to travel.”
Head coach John Marovich didn’t necessarily have Norfolk locked into his lineup before she came to campus, but it didn’t take him long during the preseason before her freshman year to know she was going to claim a spot.
“It became obvious over preseason training that Nicole earned the opportunity to get a shot at that spot,” Marovich said. “Anytime you’re asking a freshman to fill a center back role, with all the responsibilities of the position, it can be hard. But Nicole adjusted seamlessly, and I think it had a lot to do with her personality on the field. She showed fire and competitiveness, she had a drive, but in critical defensive moments, she had calmness and showed the wherewithal to step up and make a play.”
A center back since her earliest days of organized soccer, Norfolk realized when she moved to the FC Wisconsin ECNL team that she had the ability to play at the next level. First introduced to Valpo through two of her father’s cousins who attended the University, a visit to campus to attend a camp let Norfolk know that this could be the place for her.
“I had the opportunity to come to one of the team’s ID camps, and that was my first chance to visit the campus,” Norfolk said. “Being here and getting that experience was a big selling point — I got to play on Brown Field, I got to meet some of the players and eat lunch with them. It gave me a really good chance to get some insight into the program and how I could see myself fitting in.”
Through the recruiting process, the consistency of Norfolk in the center of the back line stood out to Marovich.
“I like a center back who does her job and does it well — someone who you don’t know that they’re out there all the time, but if you take them off, it becomes obvious they’re not out there,” Marovich said. “When I watched Nicole, I saw a player who was very consistent in her positioning, very consistent in how she would play — it was nothing flashy, but she consistently got the job done.”
Norfolk signed her NLI to join the Valpo soccer program in November 2018 and arrived on campus in the summer of 2019 to prepare for her freshman season. Not only was Norfolk on the travel squad for that trip to New York, she was in the starting lineup for every single match and was playing every single minute — although she never really thought of it as a streak of consecutive minutes played.
Her first two seasons came and went with her playing every single minute — a total of 3,038 consecutive minutes. Earlier this season at Robert Morris, Norfolk surpassed Tracy Roos’ program-record mark for a field player of 3,413 consecutive minutes played.
One week later, with the Beacons enjoying a 3-0 lead over St. Bonaventure, Marovich made the call in the 83rd minute to bring in Jensen Summers and give Norfolk the first break of her career. When asked about the streak and the record, Norfolk — who also got to stand on the sidelines and cheer on her teammates for the final 70 minutes of the matchup with Cornell College earlier this month — demurely pivoted to what it meant to the team to be in a position that she could come off the field.
“I think it’s been cool this year that we’ve had games where we’ve had large leads and have taken advantage of goal-scoring opportunities,” Norfolk said. “It’s a great chance for other center backs to get live game experience and for me to get to support them.”
Norfolk and the rest of the Valpo defensive unit have been stifling opposing attacks over the last two seasons. This past spring, Valpo surrendered just eight goals in 14 matches, while this season has seen the Beacons give up just two goals through their first seven MVC matches. But to Norfolk, it’s not just the defense that’s responsible for those sterling defensive numbers.
“We’ve definitely been taking pride in our defensive success, and it’s been a team effort on all fronts,” Norfolk said. “Everyone in their own area is committed to performing at their best. We’re happy as a defense when we finish a shutout, but we know it wouldn’t be possible without our midfield keeping the ball or our attack pushing forward to help limit the number of chances for our opponents.”
In Marovich’s eyes, the consistency he saw from Norfolk when he recruited her has translated into her role in the team’s defensive success the last two seasons.
“Anytime you have consistency, consistency breeds success,” Marovich said. “Having a consistent voice back there, there’s a comfort level in that. There’s comfort in having somebody back there who you know they’re going to be where they’re supposed to be and you know what they’re going to bring. That stability leads to success, and Nicole being there — along with Peyton Flynn — has really been that constant the last two seasons.”
As impressive as Norfolk has been on the field at Valpo, her academic work might be even more impressive. A biochemistry major who entered this semester with a 3.945 cumulative GPA, she raves about the opportunities she can take advantage of in the academic realm.
“I’ve had way more opportunities within my major than I even knew were possible before starting school here,” Norfolk said. “The chances to work on research, the ability to lead help sessions — I didn’t know that I would be able to get that involved academically. Taking advantage of those experiences — not only in the classroom, but outside the classroom too — has increased what I’ve been able to learn in my time here so far.”
A big part of Norfolk’s great academic experience has been the total commitment of her professors — not only to helping her succeed in the classroom, but in supporting her soccer career as well.
“It’s been awesome to see how bought in our professors are into us as people,” Norfolk said. “I met Dr. Bob [chemistry professor Robert Clark] when I came for FOCUS, and that was my first taste of how much our professors care about us. Several of my professors have attended our home games, and it’s just great to have that support. I’ll have professors e-mail me after a game, and include a personal comment, so it’s clear they actually watched the game and didn’t just look up a score.”
Norfolk and her teammates have helped the soccer program take numerous steps forward since joining the MVC. This past spring saw Valpo advance to the championship match of the MVC Tournament for the first time, and this season’s squad will challenge for the MVC regular season title on Thursday — a chance that Norfolk and her teammates can’t wait to take advantage of.
“It is an awesome opportunity that we have ahead of us,” Norfolk said. “We are so excited to get on that bus Thursday. Last season, we had a great run, went up to Loyola for the tournament championship match and didn’t get the result we wanted. This year, we’ve done a great job trusting our process with our style change. We’ve competed every game, played to our strengths and kept the ball so well, and we’re excited to get the chance as a team to try to complete our run and win a championship on Thursday.”