Woman staring off to side

Former Illinois State soccer star Kate Del Fava is a rookie midfielder for the Utah Royals FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. (Photo by Lucas Muller/Utah Royals FC)

In early spring, Kate Del Fava reported to her first training camp as a professional athlete, living out a lifelong dream after the Utah Royals FC of the National Women’s Soccer League drafted her in January. But suddenly, the former Illinois State star found herself right back on the fields of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where those dreams first hatched.

Two days into the Royals’ official preseason training in mid-March, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut down team activities until further notice. At first, Del Fava was hopeful it might be a quick turnaround but soon realized that wouldn’t be the case. She left a week later for Wisconsin, where she remained for more than two months.

The 2019 Missouri Valley Conference player of the year practiced on a pitch at a local park while finishing up her degrees in pre-veterinary medicine and animal science.

“It was surreal,” she said. “I had just reached that dream of mine to start playing professional soccer, and it was stripped away as there were more important things in the world that needed attention. It just upped my appreciation for everything I have around me and the opportunity in front of me.”

Her hard work in the setting where she first fell in love with the game paid dividends. The Royals officially signed Del Fava to a one-year contract, and she is on the team’s roster as a midfielder for the NWSL Challenge Cup, which kicked off June 27. The NWSL is the first team professional sports league in the U.S. to resume play. Del Fava and the Royals play the Houston Dash at 11:30 a.m. June 30 in Herriman, Utah.

Women standing in a line

Del Fava said the NWSL has taken safety precautions, such as wearing masks at all times while not playing, seriously. (Photo by Lucas Muller/Utah Royals FC)

Del Fava knew when she was drafted that she’d have to finish up her course work at Illinois State online. She had her proper goodbyes to everyone at the University prior to leaving for Utah in February, something her fellow May 2020 graduates did not have. The pandemic forced classes online for the rest of the spring semester, which moved spring commencement online and offered graduates the opportunity to walk in winter commencement, which is scheduled for December.

The Bone Scholar student was able to balance training from home while finishing up her Agriculture degrees, graduating summa cum laude.

“I was really thankful for all the support I had around me,” she said. “My professors, academic advisors, coaches. They made everything way easier.”

Del Fava purchased a treadmill and set up a home gym to stay in tip-top shape. She also recruited her sister to help with drills at the local soccer park.

Toward the end of May, Del Fava returned to Utah as the Royals began coming back for small group activities when the NWSL announced its plan for the isolated tournament—all games will be played in Utah with players staying in secluded housing.

The team slowly phased in full-team workouts while using precautions given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Del Fava said members of the organization are required to wear masks anytime they are not playing. They also have daily symptom and temperature checks.

“Our staff and trainers have been amazing at following the protocol and making sure we understand why we are doing what we are doing,” Del Fava said.

It took a few extra months, but after utilizing her time away wisely, Del Fava is all set to lace up her cleats for the first time as a professional athlete. The Royals have shown their belief in her by making her a part of the roster. She’s ready to show what the Missouri Valley Conference saw the last four falls.

“It’s one thing to be drafted, but it’s another to be signed and have a club want to commit to you,” Del Fava said. “It was a cool moment, and I’ll never forget it.”