The World Cup started Thursday in Brazil, and if you're looking for an area girls soccer player who'd been counting the days until the tournament began, you'd want to start with Geneva's Annie Waldoch.
That's not just an idle factoid either. Poll most rosters and there will be a devoted handful who keep track of the games beyond those they play. But if you want a link to the advanced way in which Waldoch played midfield or defense in her time in the Vikings program, her devotion to the world's most popular sport would be a good starting point.
"She sees the field really well," Geneva coach Megan Owens said. "A lot of that, you learn from watching. I wish more high school kids watched. You learn what to do in certain situations from watching professional games, and I think watching them helped her grow and develop."
Waldoch played in the heart of Geneva's lineup for four years and garnered plenty of attention from other teams, all of whom had difficulty working past her on the field or dealing with her forward passes and runs.
And she starred again this year, efforts for which the senior is the Captain of the Daily Herald Tri-Cities All-Area Team.
"There's only one school in our town, our rivalries are with schools from other towns like Batavia or St. Charles," Waldoch said. "I love that I can represent the community. I love this town and I was really proud when I was able to wear the team jersey. Looking back and knowing I'm never going to be able to do it again, it's really special."
Like many area players, Waldoch began playing at an early age, growing up in a soccer-mad house with five brothers -- three older and two younger.
"I feel like I've grown up with the game," Waldoch said. "Everything in the house is soccer-oriented. We go and play three-on-three in our backyard. We talk about soccer. I've known how many days there were until the first World Cup game, and we always watch it."
Waldoch's role shifted somewhat during her career and sometimes during matches. She was originally part of an airtight four-player back line. This year, the Vikings frequently played with three defenders and Waldoch just in front of that line as a defensive midfielder.
In world soccer terms, Waldoch plays as a modern "libero" in the manner of Italy's Andrea Pirlo, who plays in front of the Italian back line to springboard attacks. And rest assured, Annie Waldoch knows who Andrea Pirlo is, and she'll be watching him on Saturday when his team plays England.
This thing about watching matches at the higher level becomes important when you watched Waldoch play. She knew when to move forward, when to hold back. She could play counterattacking passes, which she did to great effect in the Vikings' 3-1 regular season victory over St. Charles. And she could also play the ball on the ground when she had to, as in Geneva's 4-2 regional title match win against Glenbard North.
"I'm trying to get the girls in my club program to watch the World Cup," Owens said. "A lot of the boys soccer players are watching English games more. The girls are caught up in so many more things. But Annie's a smarter player because of it. She has really good field vision. Her knowledge grew from watching the game, and it made her fun to coach."
If Waldoch was known for one thing, it was the strength in her legs. As with her soccer knowledge, this wasn't some accident.
"I try to work as hard as I can," Waldoch said. "The core workouts we did with my club team, Strikers, were really helpful. And when we'd do things where they said to do 25 of something, I'd try to do 30."
It wasn't just opponents who were aware of the power Waldoch possessed.
"I remember, even before she was in high school, she'd come to camp with the older kids," Owens said. "I'd ask them to go into goal, and they wouldn't want to whenever (Waldoch) was shooting because her shots were so powerful. She definitely has the strongest shot on the team."
Ironically, then, Waldoch didn't score many goals for the Vikings. This year, she scored twice, including one from a Taylor Williams free kick.
"It doesn't happen often, so I do remember them," Waldoch said. "My dad was always telling me to shoot, and that goal (against Wheaton North) was a header goal, and my dad wasn't at the game. My mom was at the game and called my dad, and even she didn't know I'd scored."
Goals aside, Waldoch launched plenty of passes forward that either resulted in goals or started moves that became scoring plays. And for a player who admits one-on-one tackles were her favorite part of her game, there was a definite physical element to her play too.
"She's an all-around player," Owens said. "She has a very good touch. She's good at bringing it down, swinging it through the midfield and being a multi-dimensional player. Usually at the high school level, you don't have players who have all those aspects to add to their athleticism. (Waldoch's) an all-around player and an all-around athlete."
This year, Waldoch had to deal with some new experiences, such as having to sit out matches through injury. She missed the Vikings' match with Batavia and played only minimal minutes at half-speed against St. Charles North with a leg injury suffered in the team's Naperville Invitational loss to Naperville North.
"I had been super lucky with injuries," Waldoch said. "I was glad it wasn't fractured, so I wasn't out the whole season. It was just a bone bruise. But sitting out against Batavia was bad too because Batavia and Geneva are huge rivals and it was the last time I'd ever play them."
Having made the decision to forego a soccer career in college, Waldoch's career came to an end when the Vikings lost 3-1 to Conant in the sectional semifinals.
"It's a bummer that we've been so close to breaking through, especially the last two years," Waldoch said. "This year especially, I felt we were really good. We had a kind of off game against Conant, which ended our season. We had one off day and it ended."
Waldoch heads to Michigan State this fall to study child development and family studies.
"My first year in high school, I wanted to play soccer in college -- any college," Waldoch said. "Then I started to get my priorities in line. I wanted to go to big schools, one I can be a fan of the rest of my life. And if you want to play soccer at a Division I Big Ten school, they own you. I want to study abroad and have a job and have a normal college student's life. With all that, playing varsity soccer was never an option for me."
Owens said another consideration is that Waldoch's chosen fields of study will require plenty of study time.
"The degree she picked is pretty unique," Owens said. "There are something like only six schools in the country that offer it. I know she has talked about playing club soccer there."
Meanwhile, there's the World Cup to follow.
"During the World Cup, there'll be 30 people in our living room," Waldoch said. "At halftime, we'll go out back and shoot around. Soccer will always be a part of me."