By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Amanda Lulek was a forward when she joined the University of Iowa soccer team in 2013, but that changed during her first preseason camp.
“It was our first practice after the fitness test and the coaches said we were going to play 11 versus 11,” said Lulek. “I remember thinking ‘OK, that will be fun.’
“All the offensive spots were taken because we grabbed the pennies and went. I was like ‘I guess I’ll go to outside back (defender), I’ve played that position before.’ Ever since when they split us up they would say ‘Amanda, defense.'”
After scoring a combined 59 goals during her final high school three seasons and being a four-time all-conference and all-sectional honoree at Geneva (Illinois) High School, Lulek was suddenly cast into the unknown.
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Lulek. “But everyone was patient with me, even the players on the field working with me. I had played outside back a couple of times before, so I knew a little bit about it.”
“It had its ups and downs, but I was just excited to be playing.”
Lulek started 20 games as a true freshman. She played the first four games of the season as a reserve before joining the starting lineup against Iowa State. Her name was penciled in alongside defensive stalwarts Caitlin Brown, Melanie Pickert, and Emily Scott for the final 20 games on a team that made history.
The Hawkeyes won a school-record 15 games, advanced to the Big Ten Tournament title game as the No. 7 seed, and earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament — the first appearance in school history.
“That season was amazing and to be part of it as a freshman on the field was even cooler,” said Lulek. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget beating Penn State twice in one season. The first time on our home field was crazy and to beat them again in the Big Ten Tournament when it was the first time we had made it that far was amazing. It was the most exciting thing I had been a part of.”
Iowa won 14 games in Lulek’s sophomore season in 2014 and advanced to a second straight Big Ten Tournament championship game. Last season Lulek was expecting more, but the Hawkeyes battled adversity during a seven-win season and missed the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in her career.
“Last year was tough,” said Lulek, who has started 53 games at Iowa. “We got hit with a few bugs that took us down. We played hard the whole year, which I was proud of our team for doing. We never gave up.”
Lulek is using the 2015 season as motivation so she can end her Hawkeye career on a high note.
“We know what it feels like to be at the top and we know what it feels like to be at the bottom,” said Lulek. “The top is better and we don’t want to feel (the bottom) again. It’s pure motivation to get out, work hard, and win games.”
Lulek can’t shake the disappointment of 2015. It’s something that was stressed during the offseason.
“Amanda is an example of how to be a good Hawkeye. She is selfless in nature, hard-working, kind, leads our team in outreach, and has performed admirably on and off the field and in the classroom. She is a leader for our program. We have a saying to excel as a student, person, and player, and she does in all three areas.” — Dave DiIanni
“We talked as a team to buy into the program and be here to win, be here for our teammates and each other,” said Lulek. “The biggest thing is playing for each other, supporting each other on and off the field, and building relationships outside of soccer, too.”
That’s where “Mama Lu” has come to the forefront as a leader. She’s helping ease the transition on a young Hawkeye roster that features nine true freshmen and 19 underclassmen.
“I have a mom figure on the team,” she said. “I have always been the one that merges to the freshmen. Right away I talk to the freshmen about what we value, our goals, and how we want the year to turn out. Then to show our actions are working toward that is even more important.”
Lulek not only says all the right things, she embodies them.
“Amanda is an example of how to be a good Hawkeye,” said UI head coach Dave DiIanni. “She is selfless in nature, hard-working, kind, leads our team in outreach, and has performed admirably on and off the field and in the classroom.
“She is a leader for our program. We have a saying to excel as a student, person, and player, and she does in all three areas.”
Lulek is someone DiIanni counts on to provide consistency.
“She is going to be mentally and physically prepared every day and committed to the cause,” said DiIanni. “When you can count on players being consistent, you know they can be successful. She prepares properly and does the right things off the field.
“Those players bleed through your team and can help create a good culture and sustain success. She has done that for three years and we’re excited for her fourth.”
Lulek cherishes her role as a defender to the point where she gets a similar feeling when being in the thick of a crucial defensive play.
“I like outside back because I can stop the goal and can be on that side of the field, but I can also get up and be a part of scoring,” she said. “I like getting those opportunities.
“I do miss those moments of scoring; they’re fun, but whenever I get a hard block on a shot or you’re on the goal line and you kick the ball away, it’s the same adrenaline that I get when scoring a goal.”
Lulek will graduate with a degree in social work in May, 2016. She looks forward to being able to “help people better their lives” upon entering the real world, but she hopes that aspect of her professional career can be put on hold.
“I want to keep playing in Poland,” said Lulek. “I am 100 percent Polish, so I am in the process of getting dual citizenship. I hope to get a chance to play with their National Team or connect with a professional team in Poland.”
The Hawkeyes return to action tonight, facing Eastern Michigan at 4:30 p.m. (CT) in Minneapolis. Iowa’s regular-season home opener is Sunday, hosting Wyoming at noon at the Iowa Soccer Complex. Admission is free.