The second-last time former University of Alberta Pandas midfielder Kiera Fujimoto took a penalty kick to decide a meaningful soccer game, she was a member of an under-15 Team Alberta playing in the final of the All-Star National Championship in Ontario. Unfortunately, her miss as the seventh shooter resulted in a loss in the final.
“I am happy to let someone else take them,” said Fujimoto, who graduates from the Alberta School of Business next week with a bachelor of commerce degree with a major in accounting.
Six years after that fateful miss, Fujimoto and her Pandas held their collective breath as the clock wound down on a spirited nil-nil tie in the 2018 Canada West bronze medal game versus the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, with the game to be decided by penalty kicks.
“Usually coaches ask before playoff situations who wants to take a penalty kick and they will pick the order kind of based off that,” she said. “I did not volunteer.”
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Then Fujimoto heard the one word she didn’t want to hear at that moment: her name.
“At first I wasn’t too worried because I was the eighth shooter. It usually doesn’t get to the eighth shooter.”
But panic set in as the sixth and seventh Panda shooters scored and the Thunderbirds answered the bell each time. Fujimoto found herself walking onto the pitch to keep her team’s bronze medal hopes alive.
“Penalty kicks are mostly mental, so I just kept telling myself that I was going to score, I’ve scored multiple times in practice, and to keep the ball low and pick a corner.”
Although she was from Red Deer, Alta., Fujimoto grew up around Pandas soccer as a frequent participant in Junior Pandas soccer camps and other program offerings.
“When I received the scholarship offer it just seemed fitting because I also wanted to go to a good school, obviously,” she said.
She had some familiarity with the U of A and a solid support network in place, but she said nothing could have prepared her for what lay ahead.
“Not only was the soccer so much better, the first year was super overwhelming, living in residence and trying to keep up with people who don’t have the same time commitment.”
Those time commitments began before the school year even started and included an extra 30 hours or so a week of daily practices, video sessions and time in the gym, as well as individual skill development, all on top of the games and travel.
“Burnout is definitely something that I had to be careful of.”
Despite an early injury in 2016, the midfielder’s soccer career got off to a good beginning as she quickly became a starter with a team that amassed a respectable 8-5-2 record before losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to UBC in the Pacific play-in round.
And while her Pandas career was off to a good start, so were her grades.
“Being in the Alberta School of Business, I quickly became confident that that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I think business, in general, is just a very good skill to have in the real world.”
In her second year, Fujimoto’s Pandas posted a stellar 13-2-2 season, only to lose to the crosstown Grant MacEwan Griffins 1-0 in the waning seconds of the 2017 Canada West quarterfinals.
“That was tough. We all grew up playing against each other, so we had developed quite the rivalry,” said Fujimoto.
As the team took another big step, so did Fujimoto’s education.
“I scheduled everything and tried to prioritize my work and became very intentional with my time. Even in 15 minutes, you can get something done.”
That year, Fujimoto’s prioritization skills led to her first of four Academic All-Canadian recognitions – an honour for those who carry at least an 80 per cent average alongside a varsity sport.
With school taking care of itself, Fujimoto’s 2018 Pandas roared to an 11-2-3 season, followed by some payback: a 2-1 win over the Griffins in the quarterfinals.
The semifinals were not so kind, as the Pandas dropped a 3-2 nail-biter to the eventual national runner-up Trinity Western Spartans.
The loss dashed the team’s hopes of a trip to the nationals, but a date with the Thunderbirds for Canada West bronze would suffice.
Fast-forward to Fujimoto’s fateful penalty kick in 2018.
“I kept going back and forth about what I was going to do,” she said. “I decided to play it a little safer and she almost had it, but it went in and I was so relieved.”
Two shots later, it was over.
“People say the bronze medal game is the hardest game to play, but it was a great way to end the season,” she said.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, a semifinal loss to the University of Fraser Valley Cascades in 2019 would be the last meaningful varsity game Fujimoto would play for the Pandas, as the pandemic wiped out what would have been her fifth and final season.
“It feels like there is no closure,” she said. “It’s been a tough decision to have to move on.”
However, a successful co-op work placement through the School of Business with accounting firm Ernst & Young means she has a job waiting for her in September.
Fujimoto said she is going to spend this summer working on her Chartered Professional Accounting designation in Red Deer before moving back to Edmonton to begin her next chapter.
“I made lots of friends. That’s probably the best part about playing soccer. You just automatically have, like, 25 friends. I think I’ll be friends with a lot of them for a really long time.”
| By Michael Brown
Michael is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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