Nearly 18 months and 2,000 miles separated those spectacular headers by Haley Hopkins. Both goals came in the closing minutes of tied soccer games, and each held up as the game-winner.
Hopkins scored the first as a senior at Mater Dei on Feb. 28, 2017, redirecting a corner kick to break a 0-0 tie against Hart in overtime of the CIF-SS Division I semifinal.
The second occurred last month, giving Vanderbilt a 2-1 lead over Miami with about two minutes left and the Commodores held on for the confidence-building, early-season win.
In between those electrifying goals, however, Hopkins experienced some of her most difficult days, long stretches that had her wondering if she’d ever play soccer again.
Like most student athletes, the challenges began shortly after Hopkins arrived at Vanderbilt in August of 2017, but these weren’t the typical stresses teenagers face when they leave home for the first time.
Instead, she felt increasing pain and swelling in her right knee and couldn’t pinpoint how the injury may have occurred.
The training staff drained the knee area, allowing Hopkins to make her college debut, but the pain and discomfort continued.
Ultimately, it was discovered that Hopkins had a staph infection, which forced her to be rushed into surgery. Hopkins was released from the hospital a few days later, but the infection returned and she had to undergo another procedure.
“Coming in as a freshman, it’s never easy in the first place,” Hopkins told the Vanderbilt student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler. “Going through something like that definitely is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Getting back on the field last fall seemed like a longshot, so Hopkins was given a medical redshirt. She had to watch from the sideline as the Commodores advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Her parents returned to Southern California shortly after the second surgery, forcing Hopkins to rely on her teammates and coaches to help her through the recovery.
“It was a really hard time in my life for sure,” she told the student newspaper. “But coming in, already having friends on the team and knowing that everyone would be there for me. … Coaches were constantly checking in with me, trainers, friends visiting me in the hospital. I constantly had people checking in from home. Definitely having the team and support system here really got me through that.”
Hopkins was back on the field last spring and even travelled to Japan with her teammates to play in a few exhibition matches.
The regular season began in mid-August and Hopkins contributed her first collegiate point by assisting on the first goal in a 3-0 win at Jacksonville on Aug. 19.
Five days later, Vanderbilt was locked in a 1-1 tie with Miami in the opening game of the Music City Invitational in Nashville when Hopkins headed in the game-winner with two minutes left.
That was the beginning of a smoldering start for Hopkins, who produced five goals and three assists in first eight games to help the Commodores to a 7-1 record heading into the SEC play.
“I think the team, even last year watching the team go that far in the NCAA tournament, was so exciting to be a part of,” Hopkins said. “I just think this year that the team most definitely has the potential to do even more, to go even further.”