By Bryan King, Northeastern Athletic Communications

Brittani Gardella smiles and takes a sip from her Starbucks iced coffee in the lobby of Matthews Arena. The five-foot, three-inch starting center back for the Northeastern women’s soccer team slouches in her chair comfortably as she reflects on her soccer career and the path least traveled to where she is today.

“No matter what path you take, you can get where you want to go,” says Gardella as she takes another sip. “Obviously, my path was not the easiest; I went up and down all the time. But I’m here where I am now because of it.”

Gardella always knew she wanted to play soccer at the college level, but her journey to that point took a detour from that of the traditional student-athlete. She has watched her soccer career evolve rapidly over the years from a stout high school experience, after which she became a walk-on player at the club level, to a starter on a Division-I college squad.

Gardella, a native of Thousand Oaks, Calif., starred as a four-year varsity soccer player at the distinguished Oaks Christian School, where she compiled four league titles, two sectional crowns and one state championship, while also earning a state title in cross country. In the process, she managed to catch the attention of  Northeastern Head Coach Tracey Leone and her staff, who recommended she try out for club soccer in the fall and then varsity in the spring. Faced with the new challenge of walking onto the team, Gardella remained humble, dug in deep and did what she does best: fight.

She made the club team in the fall and walked onto the varsity squad that spring.

“I struggled a bit in the beginning with both the speed of play and the level of fitness required to be a D-I athlete,” Gardella admits. “Mentally, I knew I had to stay strong throughout it all. Once I began to understand how D-I athletes play and how fit they are, I was able to push myself to get to that level.”

Gardella quickly found her bearings, logging over 1,000 minutes of game time, including 16 appearances and 11 starts in her rookie year. But as the season came to an end and the weather turned bitterly cold, she suffered a setback. Overwhelmingly homesick being 3,000 miles from California, Gardella decided to transfer away from the Red and Black and move closer to home to sunny Pepperdine.  

“I think I needed a break from soccer, in a sense.I felt like I had pushed myself too much. So when I went home, I decided to focus on my studies, focus on what I needed for school and volunteer opportunities in the hospital,” Gardella, a biology major, said. “I made a rash decision, and looking back, it probably wasn’t the best decision for me, but you live and learn.”

With a season away from the game to focus on herself, Gardella’s competitive nature had her missing soccer, and her love of Boston had her missing Northeastern. So she packed her bags once again to return to NU for the 2014 season with open arms from her teammates and coaches.

Gardella’s passion had re-energized her and given her the desire to compete at the highest level once more. But as soon as she returned,Gardella suffered another setback: a stress fracture that put her in a boot for six weeks.

“That was tough,” Gardella acknowledges with a sigh. “It was hard because that was a huge reason why I came back – to play last year and get back into the groove of things. From preseason on, I just got deflated. I definitely struggled with that a lot last season and had to stick it out.”

The coaching staff kept her motivated with reminders that she would still be a major piece of the puzzle for a team that was coming off its second straight Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship. With that in mind, Gardella looked adversity straight in the face and accepted the next challenge. She buckled down again, used the inner fire that earned her the nickname “Taz” from her dad, and returned to the field for spring ball in the best shape of her life.

“With the door open after the departure of our two starting center backs, Britt did more than run through the challenge–she sprinted through it,” Leone says with a smile. “She came back fit as all-get-out in the spring and helped us rebuild our backline very quickly and almost seamlessly. It’s really allowed us to succeed in the back and start further ahead than we thought we could have.”

Gardella has helped guide the Huskies to a 7-4-1 mark this season, making 10 starts and emerging as one of the team leaders. Her experience has allowed her to mentor the freshman class and succeed in the back.

“In some of the games, she’s the best player on the field,” says Leone. “It’s amazing to watch. Consistently, she has a really big impact for us, game in and game out, practice in and practice out.”

As a senior, Gardella’s playing days are coming to a close, and she has plans to attend grad school with hopes of being a physician assistant.Gardella shares what she hopes her story’s legacy will be.

“I hope I can show that the path you take is not going to be as easy as you want it to be. But as long as you stay positive and mentally fight through it all, you can get wherever you want to go.”

Originally published on GoNU.com.

Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics.