Even before she moved to San Luis Obispo, Katarina Drake was set on playing soccer at Cal Poly.
Now that her National Letter of Intent to join the Mustangs was signed last week, the San Luis Obispo High standout can hardly contain her joy.
“I’m really excited to take my play to the next level,” Drake, a senior, said Thursday. “I don’t want to compare myself to others, but I want to strive to be the best at the next level. I love soccer so much, so it’s just so exciting.”
Drake, a center midfielder and co-captain of the Tigers, is no stranger when it comes to proving herself to new teammates.
She played varsity soccer as a freshman at Los Altos High in the Bay Area before moving with her father 20 miles north to Aragon High as a sophomore.
Drake moved to San Luis Obispo as a junior to live with her mom, and by then she was an expert on acclimating to the unknown.
“I was a freshman at Los Altos playing on varsity, and I think that really helped me learn how to be in a different environment because I was with a lot of older girls,” she said. “So then when I had to move the next year, it was even easier (to assimilate), but still a little hard.
“Then when I came to SLO, it was like, ‘I do this every day.’ ”
San Luis Obispo coach Kaleena Andruss said Drake’s tactical abilities and leadership skills showed from the start. So it came as little surprise to the coach when Drake was named co-captain along with goalie Lily McCann just one year after joining the Tigers.
“Kat is such a workhorse; she works hard on and off the field, and she just brings an energy that people are attracted to — and they look up to her,” Andruss said. “She’s just kind of a natural leader without having to bark orders or anything like that, but just with her work ethic. She pushes her teammates to do better.”
Drake first caught the eye of Cal Poly head coach Alex Crozier as a sophomore, when her mom signed her up for a Mustangs soccer camp in San Luis Obispo.
Even then, Drake’s on-ball strength stuck with the veteran coach.
“One of the things that makes a difference at the college level is being really assertive with the ball, and she had those qualities right away,” said Crozier, who is in his 22nd year of coaching at Cal Poly. “I think she’s going to bring some things that help make our team better.”
Drake attended one more camp as a sophomore before committing to the Mustangs.
“It was the one school I had looked at because I’m really content with the programs the school offers and I love the area, too,” said Drake, who hopes to pursue a major in engineering or pre-med.
After Drake moved to San Luis Obispo, Crozier got an even better look at his future player, coaching her SLO Storm club team.
“I was able to work with her a lot,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know her pretty well.”
Crozier said he’ll have to wait until Drake starts practicing with the team in the fall to see where she fits on the field, but added, “She has the ability to play anywhere on the field except probably goalkeeper.”
Drake has spent the majority of her career playing in the center midfield, where creativity and tactics converge.
“It’s a hard position to play because you’re always going up and coming back — you have to be a complete player,” she said. “But I love starting the attacks and controlling the field.”
If playing club soccer for her college coach wasn’t enough of an advantage, Drake has also been able to learn under one of Crozier’s former players, Andruss, who played for the Mustangs from 2006 to 2010.
Oh, and she also played in the center midfield.
“I played center mid at Poly, so I want to help her get to that next level,” Andruss said. “It’ll be a big challenge, and it’s a huge next step in her life. It’ll be great for her.”
Part of the challenge, Andruss said, will be becoming more of an offensive weapon. Drake has just four goals and one assist this year, but her coach said she has potential for more.
“She helps set the tone and the pace of the game for us, which is huge at this level,” Andruss said. “She does a great job getting us forward, I just want her to get more involved in the actual scoring process.”
According to Drake, their relationship has helped advance her game to the point where she is confident she is ready for the next level.
“I respect (Andruss) so much, and she’s encouraged me so much,” Drake said. “I wanted to get fitter, and she helped me get fitter. I wanted to get stronger, and she helped me get stronger.”
“She’ll tell me the truth, and I love that. I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, you did great.’ I want to hear what I can do to get better.”