Climbing the ladder — that’s how Kaleigh Kurtz describes her career. Not the corporate ladder. Think soccer.
Kurtz describes the theme of her athletic career as a stepping ladder that just keeps going. “I get to the next step, and then I’m at the bottom of that step. And, I have to slowly build so that I can get to the next step,” Kurtz says. “Then once I’m there, I don’t get complacent. I just try to figure out how I get to that next step.”
No doubt, that determined, never-stop mindset helped Kurtz get to where she is now — a defender for North Carolina Courage, a U.S. women’s pro soccer team.
After playing soccer at the University of South Carolina for three years and playing one season of pro soccer in Sweden after graduation, Kurtz decided to come back home and try out for a U.S. women’s pro team. During that time, she spent many hours training extensively with 11.11 Training and Knight Performance Factory in Greenville.
With the help of her USC coach, Jamie Smith, Kurtz’s soccer skills got the attention of several National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) coaches. She received calls from North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, and Sky Blue FC.
Ultimately signing with North Carolina Courage, Kurtz knew she would have the opportunity to learn from some of the best players in the world in her position. She plays the center back position, which serves as the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. Two Courage defenders who Kurtz is learning directly from are Abby Erceg (New Zealand national team) and Abby Dahlkemper (U.S. women’s national team).
Kurtz’s competitive spirit began at a young age — constantly keeping up with her sister. When her sister, older by three years, started playing soccer at the YMCA, so did Kurtz. Then, she continued to develop her soccer skills by playing with Greenville County Rec.
The Greenville native started playing competitive soccer at the age of 9 when she made the premier travel team at Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (CESA). Kurtz’s “Rec” coach recommended she try out for the team.
“I went into tryouts without any expectations — nothing,” Kurtz says. “I thought I was absolutely terrible. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” To her and her parents’ surprise, Kurtz made the CESA premier team.
Kurtz reminisces on those early soccer days and her first practice with Coach Andrew Hyslop. “My coach was asking us to juggle with our feet, and so I’m sitting in the corner so that no one can see me. Because I had never juggled before, and I was hitting like two. I was the worst player on the team,” Kurtz explains.
After one of the starting players was injured, Kurtz had her time to shine in this new position. “And then it turned out that I could play that position,” she says.
Kurtz spent much time practicing by herself and with her dad at home to improve her soccer skills and add extra touches.
“Mainly, I had to work my butt off. I don’t like being bad at things, especially in front of other people,” Kurtz says. “So, when I couldn’t juggle, I went home the next day and every single day after that I would juggle by myself for 15-30 minutes until I could do that.”
Soccer continued to be her passion throughout high school as she contributed to Riverside High School’s winning the state title her freshman year. She also was awarded MVP several times and All-State in South Carolina All-Region every year.
During her time at USC, Kurtz started every game during her last two seasons and received United Soccer Coaches First-Team All-America honors in 2016, was named the 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and qualified as a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy.
“I still haven’t lost the love for the game,” Kurtz says. “I love the competitive aspect of soccer. Even if I am at the bottom, hard work does go a long way. And, I can work my butt off so that I can get to that next step.”
Her biggest competitor and inspirer is herself. “I don’t want to be cocky, but I think it’s me,” Kurtz says with a humble laugh. “At the end of the day, it’s can you beat yourself from day to day. Can you make yourself better? So, it’s just having a strong mental capacity to be able to make yourself better. If you rely on someone else, what if they get burned out?”
Fitness and mental toughness are what Kurtz relied on to better herself as an athlete. And, that’s what she relies on now to continue improving as a professional soccer player.
“I would watch it on TV and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’ But then when I got into the environment, I was like, ‘Holy crap, these girls can play soccer,'” Kurtz says of playing with North Carolina Courage.
Pushing the boundaries and fighting complacency, Kurtz never stops striving to improve. “As you get more into it, you learn how to get comfortable being out of your comfort zone,” she says.
So, what’s the next step on the ladder for Kurtz? The whole next level would be going to play with the U.S. women’s national team.
But right now, she plans to absorb all she can from North Carolina Courage and get as much playing time as possible. One step at a time.