Arizona State coach Graham Winkworth told his true freshman Callie Darst before the 2019 season that he was just going to throw her into the “deep end” and let her handle her own way around collegiate soccer.
The local Hamilton High School product responded well to the challenge. Despite being a true freshman in arguably the strongest conference in Division I women’s soccer, she started every game and led the Sun Devils in minutes played.
“It was pretty crazy. I remember one of my first Pac-12 games like, ‘wow, this is so different than anything I’ve ever played in before,’” Darst said. “The games are so fast, so physical, everybody on the field is so good...It was really fun. It was definitely a learning curve at first, but ready to have a sophomore season that I’m more prepared for.”
Winkworth’s faith in Darst showed in the amount of time she saw the field, and in her words, she’s just happy to see the field at any time.
Darst will certainly play a significant role for the Sun Devils in 2021 as she could be moved throughout the field in various positions. Her athleticism allows her to play at each level on the field whether in be as a back or forward.
On a team with a lot of international players who can miss time throughout the season for national team duties and COVID-19 protocols that could prevent players from playing at any moment, Darst’s ability to move around gives Winkworth a lot of flexibility.
“It helps to fill in the gaps when we need it,” Darst said. “I’ve always jumped around positions. Growing up I was a center back, in high school I went to forward and always for (Arizona’s Olympic Development Program) team I was outside back. Whatever coach has thrown me, I’m just like, ‘let’s do it.’”
It’s hard to emphasize Darst’s stats from last year as she only collected one point off an assist. However, she does a lot of the dirty work and the small things. That will be vital for the Sun Devils, who are trying to get better at the small details that decide games.
Last season’s 6-11-3 record doesn’t truly resemble Arizona State’s play. The Sun Devils lost seven games by one goal in 2019, a handful of them with the game-winning score coming in the final 10 minutes.
Arizona State drew a tie with Washington State, a team that reached the Final Four in the 2019 tournament and hung around with a highly-ranked USC until the final minute.
Although, Darst and the Sun Devils know that for them to make an impact in the Pac-12, they need to improve in those close-game situations.
“Last year we had so many games that were just one goal or one corner kick away,” she said. “We’ve been focused on the little things all offseason and our team chemistry has improved a lot. The mental game is just a lot different. We would’ve put our heads down last season, like alright this is just how the game is going to go.
“We had to have a lot of honest conversations about why that season went how it did. This semester we have a different drive. It feels different playing on this team than it does last year. We’ve tightened up the little things. We are doing what we do best rather than trying to counter what other teams are doing.”
The Sun Devils likely will have freshmen be contributors again, and despite being one season removed from being in their shoes, Darst has plenty advice to offer. She’s been in the program for almost two years and understands the culture set in Tempe.
She hopes the message to play to your own strengths, much like she trusts her athleticism, to help her fresh-faced teammates.
Darst also fathoms that the youth from 2019’s team has to grow up quickly as the centerpieces for the Sun Devil program. In terms of minutes played, seven of the top eight Sun Devils from 2019 in that category were either freshmen or sophomores.
“We had so many young players last season and now we are all becoming the core of the team,” Darst said. “We are creating an atmosphere for how we do it, if you don’t fit into that, this isn’t the place for you. If you’re not going to work hard, that’s not how we do it here. It’s just a lot of good things coming together.”