The Piscataway High School girls soccer team manager is the most instrumental part of the team. Ever since last year, Anya Lopez has shed her light on a path that is filled with numerous obstacles for the Chiefs while playing in the demanding Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division.
What began as an idea among the players before the 2014 season quickly turned into reality when they approached their coach, Jen Vroman, about the proposal.
“Last year, in the beginning of September, the girls brought this to my attention,” Vroman said. “Her freshman year, she was a little sick and in-and-out of school a lot. Sophomore year, she was coming back and feeling a lot better. A couple of girls approached me and felt like Anya would be a good fit for team manager. We brought her on, and it’s been the best thing that has ever happened to us.”
The road to the team manager position has not been easy. Lopez was originally an up-and-coming soccer player for the Piscataway soccer club. She was a fearless defender who made game-changing plays patrolling the backlines for her team in middle school.
When Lopez was in eighth grade she hurt her arm during a game, so her parents brought her to the hospital. While the doctor was examining her arm, Lopez reported her neck had been bothering her as well.
At first, the doctor could not find a solution, but after they conducted an MRI, they realized Lopez’s brain was swollen. The doctor’s findings indicated that she had Lyme disease, which sent Lopez into a coma that lasted around four months. The doctors tried to convince her parents to take her off life support because of her condition, but they refused. Lopez eventually came out of the coma.
Le’La Allen had the original idea to make Lopez the team manager. Allen was close with Lopez when they attended elementary school, but lost touch with her in middle school. Their friendship was resurrected in high school when Lopez took Allen to Rutgers University games.
“She invited me to go to a couple of Rutgers games with her,” Allen said. “At one of the Rutgers games, the high school team went too, so I thought it would be a good idea for her to meet the high school coach. At the game, we introduced her, and ever since then she has been around the team.
“Everybody loved her. She has such a bubbly personality, so everyone treated her like she was a part of the team already.”
It was the perfect match. The girls on the team welcomed her with open arms, and Lopez adapted to the position right away. This year, Lopez took care of attendance during preseason and did a lot of coach Vroman’s paper work. She’s also in charge of the girls soccer team’s Instagram account (pway_girls_soccer15), for which she takes a lot of pictures during training sessions and games in order to keep the community updated.
Most important, Lopez has become more than a team manager for the players, she is a close friend for them. Especially for sophomore Brianna Chapman, who became close to Lopez when she first received news about the Lyme disease. Chapman now calls Lopez her “sister.”
“She comes over at least once or twice a week for dinner,” Chapman said. “She is like a sister to me. We’ve gotten really close since middle school because of everything she has been through. I guess our friendship started because I would visit her in the hospital.”
The Chiefs realized Lopez’s importance to the team during a matchup against South Brunswick at home last year. The Vikings were at the top of the Red Division at the time and needed someone to give them an extra boost heading into the match. So Vroman asked Lopez the day before the big contest to give a speech to the team.
But Lopez got sick and couldn’t attend the game. Even though she wasn’t on the field with the team, Lopez was there in spirit.
“We had a tough go at our season last year,” Vroman said. “We were playing South Brunswick at home, and the day before, I asked her if she could talk to the girls before the game and try to give them some encouragement. South Brunswick was at the top of the division last year, and I felt like some words from Anya would help.
“She ended up getting really sick for a couple of days, and she couldn’t be at the game. Before the game we had a team chat because everyone was concerned about where she was. We had a great conversation about not complaining and seeing things differently. We went out and played a fantastic game. To go onto the field in the second half, the girls decided they had to win the game for Anya. At that moment I realized how special she is for us as a whole.”
Knowing the support Lopez has provided to the team, the girls on the soccer squad have returned the favor during their beloved manager’s constant fight to walk again. Lopez has been in a wheelchair ever since eighth grade, but recently she has been able to walk around the field in crutches.
The crutches were made possible because of the team’s respect for Lopez. Ken Nugent, who is her neighbor and graduated last spring, organized a teamwide donation to help Lopez obtain a pair of crutches last year. She sent a group text message to several players on the team and asked if they could pitch in a few dollars to help raise funds for the crutches. Collectively, the Chiefs were able to meet their goal.
Chapman’s brother often drives Lopez to physical therapy. She attempts to make every training session, but every Monday and Wednesday she goes to New Brunswick for her physical therapy session. Her ambition has allowed her to be able to walk with the crutches and even kick a soccer ball. This has given the girls a different outlook on the game of soccer, and on life in general.
With a 2-0 record, Piscataway has shocked the GMC with victories over South Brunswick and Old Bridge, both games heading into double overtime. Lopez’s presence may be discreet to the rest of the conference, but her impact to the Chiefs is felt on a daily basis. She has undeniably become the staple that holds the Piscataway girls soccer program together through thick and thin.
“She is considered a player to us,” Chapman said. “Even if she isn’t on the field playing with us, she still is on the team. The kids that sit on the bench are always talking to Anya. She is also always giving us advice about what to do.
“I know with me, I get really hard on myself in soccer, and she’s always there to keep me level-headed. In games when I mess up, I always know when I get off the field, Anya is there to boost my confidence. She helps get me back in the zone so I don’t bring everyone else down.”