Bill and Vicki Druehl will leave their Stamford home early Thursday morning for the 150-mile drive to Philadelphia. When you are soccer parents, when athletics form the family lifeblood for generations, these drives are common.
This one is not.
“UConn had its banquet after Senior Day on Sunday,” Bill Druehl said. “Heidi’s last home game. My wife and I were just bawling our eyes out. I couldn’t hold it back. It was brutal.”
He lets out a laugh.
“Yeah, my dad tries to act like the tough guy,” Natalie Druehl said, “but he’s a softie.”
So what’s it going to be like Thursday when the UConn women play at Temple? What’s it going to be like when two sisters, two years apart and forever bound by soccer, play against each other for the first time in their lives in the last week of Heidi’s career?
“I can’t answer it,” Bill said.
Natalie, a sophomore midfielder for the Owls, could.
“He’s going to be a mess.”
Stamford is filled with great athletic family stories and the Druehl family is one of them. Bill’s dad played on the Stamford Little Bigger League world champions, the forerunner of Babe Ruth League, in the early ’50s. Bill, at Stamford, and Vicki, at Catholic, were outstanding baseball and softball players.
Their oldest daughter, Victoria, was one of the top age-group tennis players in New England before giving up the sport and rowing at UConn. Their son Bill was an FCIAC All-Star in baseball at Westhill.
Heidi and Natalie began playing Stamford Youth League soccer when they were 5.
“I think every kid begins playing soccer when they’re 5,” Heidi said.
“We just fell in love with the sport and kept going,” Natalie said.
While athletics are such a vital part of the Druehl story, soccer had not been. Vicki and Bill never played. Even years later, Bill says, his knowledge of soccer can be summed up by “Run like hell and don’t give up. I still have trouble figuring out offsides.” That doesn’t mean Vicki, who has her own inspiring story, and Bill have not supported their kids. They have in every way.
“The girls had natural skill,” Bill said. “There was no teaching from Vicki or me. They just kept getting better. It was kind of unbelievable.”
The Hurricanes, travel teams, premier teams, Westhill. Under a number of coaches, their stature kept growing. Both sisters call the other “tenacious.”
“Heidi and I always been super close,” Natalie said. “It always has been competitive between us. I mean, we lived in the same room since we were born.”
The girls represented Connecticut at national tournaments in multiple years. They led the New York Rush Patriots and Beachside Soccer Club of CT win to State Cup titles. Their age difference would often put them on different teams within the same program. They found a rhythm in high school together at Westhill. They were All-FCIAC and All-State performers. They would be D-I college starters.
Heidi, who graduated from Westhill in 2015, committed to UConn and played defense from the start. Her class would make two NCAA Tournaments, win two AAC regular-season titles and the 2016 tournament. The Huskies also have struggled to a 3-13 record under first-year coach Margaret Rodriguez.
When it came time for Natalie — who graduated from Westhill in 2017 — to pick a college, she sought her own narrative.
“I definitely wanted to veer off from the UConn track,” Natalie said. “Everyone in my family went to UConn. I wanted to branch off, have my own team.”
“Heidi was the first one in the spotlight,” Bill said. “Natalie was the one always catching wind about Heidi. Heidi was going to be this, blah, blah. When it came time for college, Natalie didn’t want to be the sheep following.”
“Natalie wanted her own path,” Heidi said.
Those paths will intersect Thursday in Philadelphia, the City of Sisterly Love. The game was moved up a day to accommodate a Sunday finale for UConn at East Carolina. That game was rescheduled after Hurricane Michael forced a postponement.
The chance to play against each other for the first time last year at Storrs was erased when Natalie suffered torn ankle ligaments. The Druehls still had a giant tailgate party.
Scoring her first career goal in the 1-0 victory over Tulsa, Natalie was selected to the AAC weekly honor roll Monday. She is an emerging player. The Owls need to win to get the final berth in the AAC tournament. The Huskies are eliminated.
“I’m really pumped to play against Heidi,” Natalie said, “but it’s definitely bittersweet. She had a hell of a ride at UConn. She will do big things in life.”
“This season has been tough,” Heidi said. “But my whole experience at UConn has been amazing.”
Natalie, studying kinesiology, wants to pursue nursing. Heidi, a nutritional science major, graduates in May. She plans to get a master’s degree, become a registered dietitian and eventually a sports nutritionist.
“I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, and this is it for me,” Heidi said. “It’s definitely emotional. To play against my sister, it’s an amazing way to end my career.”
The sisters talk and text every day. Lots of FaceTime, Natalie said. They’ll even exchange little scouting reports on opponents.
“I just asked Natalie to please let us win,” Heidi said, laughing.
The UConn men will close Morrone Stadium, which opened in 1969, on Saturday. A new stadium, set to open in 2020, will be built in its footprint. Not only had Sunday been Senior Day for Heidi, the women played for the final time at Morrone. Lots of alumni were on hand. Lots of reminiscing. There was a real sense of finality for Bill and Vicki Druehl.
Still, this is sports. There is another game to be played. Bill, a building contractor, and Vicki, an administrative assistant at Rye Country Day, will get in the car Thursday morning. Only this will be no ordinary soccer drive. This is one for the family. Yes, this is one for Mom.
Vicki has fought ovarian cancer. Bill is sure that fight has inspired their children. Her positive impact, her energy, Bill says, has lifted the family. In turn, sports, soccer, has lifted Vicki. That’s the way it is for the great sports families.
“My mom has gone through so many ups and downs with cancer,” Natalie said. “She wouldn’t let it faze her. She wouldn’t think a second about taking us to our next game or next tournament. She stayed so strong for us. There’s no way we would have made it to where we are without her.”
Vicki is cancer-free now, Bill said, her tests are going extremely well.
“Obviously when the terrible news came, it was hard,” Heidi said. “Seeing her struggle was difficult, because she’s usually never in that position. I tried to be strong for her. I’m so happy she’s doing so well and is healthy now. So grateful. She’s our rock.”