It seems downright comical now, but there was a time when Christine Levering wondered if she had what it took to be part of The College of New Jersey women’s soccer program.
“At my very first practice, I was just hoping ‘Wow, I hope I make the team.’ That was really my mindset,” Levering recalled. “Everyone was so good, so composed, the pace of the play so much faster than in high school.”
Five years and 85 games later, Levering not only proved she belonged, she has become the standard that other incoming freshmen will strive to equal.
Entering TCNJ’s NCAA Division III national semifinal game with the University of Chicago on Dec. 1, Levering stood as the Lions’ all-time leader in goals with 61 and points with 149. Many of those goals are clutch. In this year’s drive to the Final Four, the Robbinsville High graduate had five goals and an assist in six New Jersey Athletic Conference and NCAA tournament games.
“She’s been remarkable,” said Joe Russo, who has been the program’s only coach in its 28 years of existence. “She’s been absolutely remarkable from the day that she’s arrived. In our game there are special kids that can just grab the game by the neck and score goals and change the game, and she’s one of those.”
Lions’ freshman Julia Obst got to meet Levering while she was still attending Hopewell Valley Central High School. Levering, also a former softball great at RHS, would help out the softball team at Hopewell and Obst would see her in the weight room. The two became friendly, but Obst’s admiration grew after becoming her teammate.
“We all look up to her,” Obst said during the regular season. “She’s such a great player, really motivational and positive. We all really enjoy her on the team. We really love her. I’ve not even played a whole season with her, and I don’t want her to go next year. She’s such a great part of the team.”
Levering wasted little time proving she belonged. Despite starting just one game as a freshman, she came off the bench to collect 11 goals and 4 assists. The following season, the numbers swelled to 16 and 9.
Four games into her junior season, disaster struck as she suffered season-ending injury. Fortunately for Levering and the Lions, it occurred early enough for her to take a medical redshirt.
For the first time in her life, however, she had to stand on the sidelines.
“It definitely was a change in roles, it was hard at first to adjust,” Levering said. “Just watching it all really made me appreciate the game more. You never know when it will be taken away for any length of time.”
Levering looked as if she had never been away when she returned last year, producing 18 goals and 9 assists to put her within striking distance of the goals and points record. That was something she didn’t need to know about.
“In beginning of this season people kept telling me I’m almost there, I’m close,” she said. “I would prefer for people not to talk about it. I try to put it out of my head. I told people not to worry about it. Just kind of ignoring it is the best thing. Everyone was talking about it for a while, and I didn’t want to disappoint them and not get it.”
That was not about to happen. In the second-to-last game of the regular season against Kean, Levering scored 17 seconds into play to push her career points total to a record-breaking 138. In the Lions NCAA opener against Roger Williams, Levering scored twice to set a new TCNJ standard with 59 goals.
It is only fitting, considering the offensive talents Levering possesses.
“She’s just a natural around the goal,” Russo said. “She turns half chances into goals, that’s a rare ability. And she’s very, very good in that attacking third.”
And that shot. Oh, that shot. It’s hard, accurate and deadly.
“Whenever we do shooting practices, when she wants to put the ball somewhere she will put it there every single shot,” Obst said. “We all just watch in amazement. She has a great shot, she knows exactly where to put it and how to put it there. I always say how jealous I am during practices.”
Levering attributes her improved skills to playing soccer year-round, which she did not do at Robbinsville. She was helped by a strong chemistry with fellow senior forwards Jessica Goldman and Liz Thoresen.
“Every year we’ve played together, we get more comfortable,” Levering said. “And by focusing only on soccer in college, I’ve grown as a player. I kind of understand the game more tactically and technically.”
Asked how she felt about setting her records, Levering said, “It was kind of a feeling of relief.”
And what does it mean to her?
“Obviously, I didn’t think coming in that was even a thought,” she said. “I was just excited to make the team. I’ve been part of so many different teams since I’ve been here, and each team each year has helped me with all of that.”
That is true, but it works both ways according to Russo.
“The other trait that people really kind of overlook is she makes the rest of the players better,” Russo said. “She brings them into the game, gets them scoring chances. She’s just a great all-around player. She was the NJAC Offensive Player of the Year the last two years, that’s not done very often. That’s a credit to her, and her determination and work rate over the past few years.”
Obst feels that because of her scoring ability, Levering’s playmaking skills often go overlooked.
“Her passing is great,” the freshman said. “She’s not selfish with the ball. She knows when to pass, when to shoot, what to do. Her mentality is really, really great.”
And while the individual platitudes are nice, Levering’s biggest joy this year is how great the team is doing.
After winning two state titles in softball and one in soccer at Robbinsville, Levering only experienced an NJAC Tournament title as a freshman until the Lions won it again this year. TCNJ had not made it to the Final Four since 2009, so that is a new experience. The fact her career could end with an NCAA title means more to her than any record.
“Winning the conference title had that same feeling (as winning states),” Levering said. “I have that feeling in my head of what it would feel like to win that national championship.”
However things turn out, Levering will look back on the past five years “as just overall amazing. I love this program, I love the traditions that the people here before me have left.”
They are winning traditions. The kind that Levering has upheld in an impressive manner.