Stephanie Sparkowski was on the clock.
The East Meadow senior streaked across the soccer pitch in her powder blue goalie uniform, dodged the fans getting food at the snack shack, sprinted around the football field, and disappeared into the high school’s locker room for a quick uniform change. Thirteen minutes later, she emerged in her football pads, with cheerleader Abigail Volpe holding her helmet. Her soccer teammate, Emma Terino, walked alongside, cheering her on.
Sparkowski had 11 seconds before the start of the second half of East Meadow’s football game against Elmont began. Plenty of time.
“Straight off the soccer field,” said the announcer gleefully, “is Stephanie Sparkowski kicking off.”
The crowd screamed in appreciation. Her teammates cheered and clapped for her, both the soccer players in the stands and the football players on the field.
So went Sparkowski’s very unusual Saturday afternoon. The soccer team captain — heading to the University of Michigan on a full Division I athletic scholarship — made 10 saves in East Meadow’s 4-2 win over Manhasset. That game ended just as the football game on the adjacent field entered its halftime break, and Sparkowski, also the football team’s kicker, began the mad dash to her side gig. She converted two extra points and kicked off three times in the Jets' 40-14 win over Elmont, meaning, of course, that Sparkowski had unlocked a rare achievement: two varsity victories in two different sports, all in the span of … oh, three hours.
“It was just amazing,” she said after. “I thought it was pretty cool that I got to play both in one day. I’m humbled, thrilled … I got two wins.”
Though this day was certainly uncommon, it did provide a telling snapshot of everything Sparkowski has to balance. She plays four varsity sports: soccer, lacrosse, basketball and now football. She used to play volleyball, too. She’s been in the National Honor Society, represented the United States on both the Under-14 and Under-16 women’s national soccer teams, and is an All-American. She played on a travel soccer team, too, so she was already accustomed to working around a two-sport season, she said.
"We’re flying back from visiting Michigan, and she’s doing calculus homework on the way home,” Kristen Sparkowski said, marveling at her daughter’s multitasking skills. “It’s amazing to me as a parent and it makes me very proud … I think she likes a challenge. She’s a very motivated person and always looks to do something different but likes to make a difference as well.”
Sparkowski, who doesn’t punt, is not expected to tackle, though she’s been taught how. The school doesn’t want to jeopardize her scholarship. She’s believed to be the first girl to play football for East Meadow.
The 17-year-old is 10-for-10 in extra points for the football team this season. On the soccer pitch, she has recorded four shutouts with 97 saves in 10 matches (the Jets are 6-3-1).
“It was a great fit all around,” said football coach Doug Bange. “We saw what she could do on the soccer field … Her presenting us with the idea that she wanted to kick, we felt it was a good combination of what we needed to fit for the team and her interest in helping us out.”
Sparkowski is 6 feet tall, has long limbs and a powerful right foot, attributes that mean she can cover a lot of space in the net, while also being an offensive weapon in transition, according to soccer coach Adam Hananel. And with a few tweaks, and the help of special teams coach Michael Lopes, those same attributes also mean she can kick extra points. The opportunity has yet to present itself, but Bange said he’s confident she can hit field goals in the 35-yard range. Her precision on kickoffs — and the ability to squib it to the 5- or 10-yard line — is another asset.
She also had long toyed with the idea of offering her services to the football team. Sparkowski's brother, Daniel, did it a few years ago, when he was a varsity soccer player at East Meadow. Last summer she finally approached the coaches. Her dad was all for it. Her mom, concerned about Stephanie’s scholarship and safety, was more hesitant. Kristen, though, eventually came around.
"She could get hurt on the soccer field or even walking into the house,” Kristen reasoned. “And I’ve seen more girls getting hurt on the soccer field than I’ve seen football players getting hurt.”
Now, all Stephanie needed to do was try out, which turned out to be a surprisingly tense affair for a girl who’s excelled at sports for as long as she’s played them. She worked on her timing, she worked on her technique, and she nailed it.
“Mentally, I was excited to be part of it, but I was also pretty nervous just to see if the guys would accept me or not,” she said. “But then after the first practice I had with the guys, I think they realized, ‘Oh wow, she actually is pretty good.’ They’ve been really cool. They’ve been really supportive of me and they cheer me on, so it’s really fun to play with the team.”
The first game was “nerve-wracking,” Kristen said. And then Stephanie hit the first of four extra points.
“The football dads were rooting for her and a lot of students came out to see her,” Kristen said. “You want to believe in her but until you see her (actually do it) and then having the pressure of being the first one to do something … my palms were a little bit sweaty.”
And though being the first girl can be groundbreaking, Kristen said that wasn't her daughter's motivation: "She did it because she thought she could help the team."
Hananel concurred: “She’s the type of kid where it’s literally never about her. It’s about the team.”
Soccer continues to be Stephanie’s first priority, but “whether it’s soccer or football, she’s been dedicated since day one,” Bange said.
The hope is to have a successful college career and get drafted and Sparkowski said she hopes to play professionally. And though her football career will end with high school, she wouldn’t mind seeing a female kicker in the NFL one day.
Carli Lloyd, fresh off a World Cup victory, caused a stir this summer when she kicked a 55-yard field goal during Eagles training camp. The style of kicking and the timing is different, and things change when you have 11 guys rushing toward you, but with enough work, it’s possible, Sparkowski said.
“You shouldn’t be held back because maybe a sport is mainly male figures or because someone says you can’t do it,” Sparkowski said. “I honestly think you can do anything you set your mind to. This didn’t come easy. I had to work toward this, and I think if you want to do something and you want to put in the effort for it, you can do it.”