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For San Diego’s Kelsey Turnbow, the wait to turn pro was worth it

Kelsey Turnbow (Courtesy of San Diego Wave FC)

Most of the NWSL community has been waiting for the start of the 2022 season since the Washington Spirit walked away with the 2021 trophy on Nov. 20. For San Diego Wave FC forward Kelsey Turnbow, the countdown began last January when the Chicago Red Stars selected her No. 18 overall in the 2021 college draft.

Instead of playing for the Red Stars last year, Turnbow opted to return to Santa Clara for the spring 2021 season, rescheduled from 2020, and stay with the team last fall for her final NCAA season.

Toward the very end of that season, Turnbow learned she wouldn’t suit up for the Red Stars after all. The day before her last game with the Broncos, a shootout loss to BYU in the College Cup semifinals, Chicago traded her rights to San Diego, along with those of Katie Johnson and Makenzy Doniak, in exchange for immunity in the 2022 expansion draft and allocation money.

At that point, Turnbow was ready. The 23-year-old had two goals she wanted to reach before turning pro: earn her MBA and win a national championship. By the end of her college career, she had both. And for good measure, she finished the 2021 fall season as a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist, First Team All-West Region honoree, All-WCC for the fifth time and a First Team All-American.

“It just felt right for me to stay another year,” the former Broncos captain told Just Women’s Sports. “I am a goal-setter and I like to challenge myself and I felt like I hadn’t done what I came there to do yet,  that was really motivating. … I just felt like I wanted to be a part of something special for as long as I could, and that year gave me that.”

Santa Clara won the 2020 NCAA title in a shootout against No. 1 Florida State last May, thanks Turnbow’s equalizer in the final seven minutes of regulation that sent the match to overtime. The attacker also converted her penalty kick to seal the upset victory.

“To win a national championship with my best friends, I will never forget that moment and I will always cherish the friendships I’ve made with those girls,” she said. “Those are my friends for life.”

The thought of capping her college career on the high note of a national championship was tempting, but with an MBA to complete and surrounded by friends she’d become even closer to after the title-winning season, Turnbow made the natural decision to stay for the fall.

The lessons she picked up during her last year at Santa Clara have served her in well in her first NWSL training camp. With San Diego, Turnbow has focused on contributing to a strong team culture, checking in on her teammates and picking them up when they’re down.

“Literally my teammates are my family and I’ve always considered them as such,” she said. “So however I can contribute to make this environment a winning culture and a really healthy environment for people to grow, I want to do that.”

In their first month and a half as a team, the Wave have created a culture built on authenticity, transparency and vulnerability, values that resonate deeply with Turnbow.

“It’s an environment where I feel like I can be myself and I can thrive and they expect so much out of me,” she said. “I love goal-setting and I like challenging myself, and I feel like this is a place where I can do that and I can really grow and be my best self both on and off the field.”

A naturally social person, Turnbow lived in a house with 13 teammates for one year at Santa Clara. So far with the Wave, she has found her relationships to be fulfilling.

Turnbow and roommate Naomi Girma, the Wave’s first overall pick in the 2022 college draft, live in the same apartment building as other San Diego teammates. They spend much of their downtime sitting by the pool of the complex or relaxing at the beach. Turnbow has enjoyed her conversations with the coaches and veterans about both soccer and life experiences.

“I just feel like they hand-picked such a great group of people and I could not be more blessed to have this experience because the people matter,” Turnbow said. “You can be somewhere so cool in the world, but if you’re not with the right people, it’s not going to be as memorable. And I just feel so grateful that the people here are awesome. It’s really contributing to my growth here.”

The team-building efforts have made preseason pass by in a flash, as Turnbow described it, but they’ve also set the Wave up to come out strong in their Challenge Cup opener Saturday against Angel City FC.

“I’ve just been thinking about this game — like, it’s my very first professional game — for so long,” she said. “To finally be here, it’s so surreal, it’s exciting, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking in all the best ways. But I feel blessed to be in this position, to where I have the opportunity to play with so many incredible players. To just step on the pitch as a professional for the first time, it’s going to be really special day.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.