Rachel Bloznalis: a Guiding Hand for Women’s Soccer
Tri-captain brings passion, commitment to team
It’s rare, Nancy Feldman says, that a coach finds herself having to tell a player to lead less—to take five minutes for herself and ease the pressure she puts on herself to be perfect.
But that’s exactly the kind of advice the longtime BU women’s soccer head coach often gives Terrier tri-captain Rachel Bloznalis (Sargent’17, SPH’19).
“For Rachel, who’s so responsible and so committed, so present and wanting to be her best all the time, I think sometimes we have to get her to relax a little bit more,” Feldman says. “I say that with a lot of praise. I’d much rather take kids and have to turn down their intensity, commitment, accountability, and how much they care than have to try to turn it up.”
As for Bloznalis, who fell in love with the game when she started playing at age four, she’s “always been a stubborn and competitive person,” she says, “which helps me stay motivated and achieve my goals. I remember not understanding when my friends would complain about going to soccer practice, because it was always the highlight of my day. I love soccer because every day there is a new challenge to solve and you have a whole team to figure it out with you.”
She takes every lift, conditioning session, practice, and game seriously “because each day is an opportunity to improve,” she says. “I’m constantly working to creative a positive and constructive environment, because at the end of the day, we work hard because we love the game, so it should be fun.”
This resolve was critical during her sophomore year, when she was forced to sit out nearly an entire season after being diagnosed with bilateral compartment syndrome, a lower-leg condition that causes intense pain and requires surgery to repair.
“The fascia that surrounds your muscles doesn’t expand, so your muscles are really tight and cramped. You get some foot numbness, and ultimately, can’t really run or exercise without pain,” she says. The result: the season came to a close for her after just two games.
“Originally, my thoughts were disappointment and sadness. But I soon realized that there were so many positives to sitting out a season and so much to be learned and observed from being injured on the sidelines,” Bloznalis says. “Ultimately, the season gave me a lot more positives than I could have imagined.”
The defender carved out a role for herself as a self-described player-coach, listening and watching intently with the aim of being a better player when she returned to the field the next year.
The strategy has paid off for the Upton, Mass., native. She amassed a string of accolades junior and senior year, among them being chosen for the All-Patriot League First Team in 2015 and 2016. Last year she was team captain and captured the 2016 Patriot League Defender of the Year award, and this season she’s been named to the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, collegiate soccer’s highest honor.
Fellow players are quick to commend her leadership and support on—and off—the field. “Rachel is the player that pulls us all together and leads our team. She’s the one we look to, especially us freshmen,” says Anna Heilferty (CAS’21), who credits Bloznalis with helping her develop into a more mature player. “She has helped me see a new side of the game of soccer. She also stays after practice with me a lot and we get extra touches in, which has elevated me technically.”
Kelly Park (Sargent’20) says that when she began to exhibit symptoms of the same condition that put Bloznalis out of action sophomore year, the upperclassman was a steady presence throughout her treatment.
“She promised me that she would come to my doctor’s appointment with me, because she didn’t want me to be alone,” Park says. “She made sure she knew when it was so she didn’t miss it. She woke up for my 7 a.m. appointment and held my hand through some painful testing. I remember leaving the office thinking how amazing a person she was to do that for a freshman she doesn’t know very well.”
A turning point
That determination to help others is also what led Bloznalis to go to Cameroon while she was recovering to work with the nonprofit Coaches Across Continents, which uses sports to have a positive effect on the lives of people around the world.
“Since I wasn’t able to make a direct impact on the soccer field, I decided to pursue another one of my passions. I love learning about other cultures, empowering and educating people, and making an impact,” she says. “I was an on-field coach for four weeks in Cameroon, working with community leaders from local partner organizations, helping them develop on-field curriculum and engaging in sensitive conversations about the issues they identified in their communities in a safe environment—the soccer field.”
That trip proved to be a turning point for her. “The people I met there and the experience helped me decide I wanted to get a master’s in public health and concentrate in health policy and law, social justice, human rights, and health equity,” Bloznalis says. “Volunteering with CAC and my course work at Sargent and SPH have strengthened my passion for identifying social determinants of health and made me want to find ways to eliminate structural violence.”
In January, she plans to travel to Nicaragua with Soccer Without Borders to continue her work with young athletes, but before she pursues a career in public health, she hopes to realize her dream of playing soccer professionally, possibly in Europe or Australia.
“She has the talent, she has the athletic ability, and she has the drive,” says Feldman. “She has a soccer brain, and she’s capable of playing at the next level.”
Before any of that, though, Bloznalis has a more immediate focus—winning a championship and soaking up every minute of her final season in scarlet and white.
“Even more than a typical senior, I have the opportunity to not take anything at all for granted, even the little things,” she says. “I’m always telling the younger girls, even if you think this is bad right now, this is what you’re going to miss. I can’t imagine not doing this another year.”
Tonight, the tri-captain and her fellow Terriers host an out-of-conference matchup with Harvard as they continue their quest to return to the top of the Patriot League. After that, just four league games remain before the conference tournament. Her teammates say they’ll be looking to her for inspiration.
“You can count on her to push through any pain or threshold to serve her team. She is respected by each of us because of the person she is off of the field, so when it comes to playing, we all look to her to lead us,” Park says. “She brings a level of intensity and passion to every practice and drill we do. She holds everyone to the standard she sets and expects us all to get there, while also encouraging us that we can.”
As her BU career winds down, Bloznalis says she wants her teammates to remember her as “a leader who was always committed to doing what was best for the team.
“Soccer has shaped so much of who I am as a friend, leader, employee, and person. It’s taught me about discipline and hard work, how to move on from mistakes, how to be a good leader and listener, and how important it is to love what you do.”
The BU women’s soccer team takes on Harvard tonight, Wednesday, October 11, at 7 p.m., at Nickerson Field, 285 Babcock St. Tickets are free for students with a sports pass, $3 for faculty, staff, and students without a sports pass, and $5 for the general public.
Taylor Raglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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