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An Indiana Soccer Family: The Kapsalis Story

Trey and Nicolette Kapsalis are successfully following their father’s footsteps. (Photo on the left: Josh Eastern, Photo on the right: Courtesy Indiana University Athletics)

For Trey and Nicolette Kapsalis, it was always going to be Indiana.

“We walked on this field when they were nine and 10-years-old, honestly,” their father Paul “Whitey” Kapsalis said. “We walked on this field. No one was here in the spring. There was one time we were holding hands and we were walking the field and they both looked up and said ‘Dad, this would be unbelievable to play here.’”

It was a sentiment that could have been brushed off and considered too whimsical to be taken seriously, but it wasn’t. For Whitey, hearing his kids say that about a program that has played such a major role in his life meant something.

Whitey grew up always wanting to wear the Indiana logo on his chest.

With that in mind, simply because you want something doesn’t mean you can have it. Whitey wasn’t the biggest or the most athletic. He was just, Whitey.  

Without the elite eye-popping talent that a program at the level of Indiana looks for, Whitey never got the offer from the Hoosiers that he coveted. However, he did have an offer and verbally committed to Michigan State.

This status of commitment continued until the day before Whitey was supposed to check-in at Michigan State. That’s when he decided to never let his dream fall to the wayside.

Whitey joined Indiana as a walk-on, knowing that it was better to fail than to have never tried at all. Little did those around him know that Whitey was going to have the impact that he did.

“He was the last man on the roster,” former head coach Jerry Yeagley said. “I, nor I don’t think anyone else other than Whitey, felt that he would perhaps get a chance to get on the field and play for IU. For him to have developed and become the leader, the captain, and so important to the program…so important in changing the culture of a group that was a bit dysfunctional, but in the end it was terrific and he did a lot more than people realize to help the program.”

The reason behind the eventual impact that he had on the program never had anything to do with size or speed. Whitey made his name at Indiana because he was just, Whitey.

“He said it was tough,” Trey said. “He was honest. It wasn’t easy at all. He had to grind. He had to wait his turn (for) his last two years.  You know, he did it. He grinded it out and then looking back at he says he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. So, he was very happy he came here.  He was happy he went through all the grind and it paid off.”

After three years of sitting on the bench, Whitey’s work ethic and drive put him in position to be there when coach Yeagley needed him most, even after Yeagley had told Whitey he wasn’t good enough.

1986 was the toughest year of Yeagley’s coaching career. It was the first time in his career in which he had to dismiss a group of players including three of his captains.

“1986 was the only time we didn’t make the tournament,” Whitey said. “We had a bad year and it was tough and there were some things going on that weren’t up to standards. The stuff that’s been going on here for years, we weren’t doing. Putting in the extra work. Showing up early for practice. Staying late.”

With the team in disarray, Yeagley did another thing he hadn’t done before. He decided to elect captains instead of putting the decision on the backs of a team vote. Yeagley didn’t look for the best on the field, rather he looked for the best off it.

“When coach Yeagley named me captain he said, ‘we have to get back the way things were,’ and I knew what he meant,” Whitey said. “My contributions on the field were not as significant as what I felt my contributions needed to be in the locker room and on the bus trips and at training and I tapped into that experience I had as a freshman and sophomore watching those champions prepare and I just paid it forward.”

As a captain, Whitey pushed to change the culture of the team. That next season, the Hoosiers went from disarray to winning 16 straight games and being considered the top team in the nation.

That’s why “Dad, this would be unbelievable to play here,” meant something.

“It was the best year of his life,” Nicolette said. “His best friends today are his teammates from IU. And just running out from under the tunnel, every single week putting that jersey on was just the best feeling. Getting to represent Indiana University as an athlete. Just everything you could ever dream about was what he was doing here.”

******

Whitey’s passion for the game not only made an impact on Indiana during his playing days, but now it helps fuel the present-day Hoosiers.

Nicolette Kapsalis has just completed her second season with the Indiana women’s soccer team. A life-long dream fulfilled.

“We definitely did grow up going to basketball games, soccer games, obviously my dad played here so we see a bunch of pictures, hear about his experience, so it was always like what we knew and kinda our dream school to come here, but we were like three years old never knowing it could actually happen,” Nicolette said.

The path to get to this point in her career was never a glamorous one. There was no fast track for Nicolette. She was never a part of the latest greatest club team or academy.  She simply played with a passion instilled in her by the family around her.

That mentality she developed growing up is what now makes her one of the most beloved on the team.

“On the field, I think she’s an incredibly hard worker,” Indiana forward Anna Geribaldi said. “I don’t think she will give up ever until the ball is out. She will go into every tackle super hard even though she’s 5’2”.  She’ll still come out of the tackle with the ball against girls on our team who can be 5’8”, 5’9”, 5’10”, so I think it’s just that desire to want the ball and it’s what drives her to work on the field and the same thing shows off the field with her school work and she’s always on top of her studies and always gets her homework done and all that stuff.”

More importantly, Nicolette’s impact can also be felt off the field.

“I think she’s definitely hard working off the field as well as on the field,” Geribaldi said. “She’s funny, she’s good to be around. I don’t know she just, I think she tries to be positive in a lot of things whether or not it’s a hard day at class or something else is stressful off the field and I think she definitely tries to find the positive in a lot of it which is definitely a good environment to be in.”

BLOOMINGTON, IN – AUGUST 19, 2018 – Midfielder Nicolette Kapsalis #25 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game against the Miami University RedHawks and the Indiana Hoosiers at Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Craig Bisacre/Indiana Athletics

Those that know the Kapsalis family understand that an undeniable work ethic defines them. Whitey displayed it in his playing days and now Nicolette does the same, and yet Whitey refuses to take credit for any of it.

Whitey truly believes his two kids became who they’re on their own, letting them both develop as individuals and leaders.

His kids don’t seem to take the credit either.

“I’m more of the lead by example type,” Nicolette said. “I think he made it so I knew that was okay too. I didn’t always have to be so vocal, because I’m not the loudest person on the field or off the field. I kinda just do my own thing. I’m there for people…He developed me more as the type of person that would become a leader, like that had qualities of being a leader, like being a great listener and just like being a great friend.”

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Trey Kapsalis, a year younger than his sister Nicolette, went into the recruitment process with a mentality similar to the likes of his father.

“I always wanted to come here,” Trey said. “He [Whitey] didn’t say you know you have to come to IU, you have to do this, you have to follow my footsteps. It was my choice ultimately.”

Trey went into the recruitment process with only one goal in mind. He wanted to join his sister at Indiana and play for the school he loved so dearly growing up.

“This was it,” Trey said. “I put it all in here. All the names in one hat.”

Even with that persistence on Indiana, Trey admits that he is much like his father as an individual that was never the biggest or strongest. It was those shortcomings that forced him to push himself not only on the field, but off of it.

Trey went into February without an offer, waiting much longer than most, and was forced to truly learn the value of patience. A value that has clearly served the Kapsalis family over the years.

“I’ll never forget the day,” Whitey said. “It was February 14th, Valentine’s Day one, and two, 14 was my number here, so there was something special about that day. We finally came down with Trey and sat in coach’s office and honestly when he made the offer and said ‘Trey, you know, think about it and let me know’, and Trey said no, he didn’t even have to think about it. They hugged and Todd looked over at me and said ‘Hey, this is pretty special for you and your daughter and your son,’ and honestly I shed some tears. It was a pretty moving experience. So, Trey showed great patience in waiting for that opportunity and when the opportunity came he didn’t hesitate. He pounced on it and it was a great drive home. It really was.”

The emotions of that day seemed to come from an overwhelming sensory overload. Not only had Trey’s patience and persistence been rewarded, but Whitey also found himself with a newfound sense of security.

“The reason for tears was one of joy for Trey, but the other reason was because we knew he was going to be in such great hands,” Whitey said. “What a feeling as a parent, to hand your kid off to Todd Yeagley…As a parent, knowing he was going to be under Todd’s guidance for four years, he’s gonna leave here a great young man and that’s what this program really offers.”

That immense trust in Indiana’s head coach Todd Yeagley comes as a result of a relationship that lasts over 30 years.

Whitey remembers having Todd roaming the sidelines during his own playing days. At age 10, Todd was humble and appreciative as he watched some of the best soccer players in the country. A mentality that follows him today.

Todd Yeagley won Big Ten coach of the year for the second time in his career. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

“He had a presence about him that was pretty special and he’s the same today,” Whitey said. “So, I feel like I’ve known him for 40 years. I don’t even know if he is 40 years old.”

This long-standing relationship has also allowed Todd the opportunity to compare father and son. Seeing the traits that defined Whitey come to fruition in Trey helped support Todd’s offer to Trey back in February.

“They have a very similar thirst for life,” Todd said. “They’re just very optimistic people and you know the glass is always half full with both Whitey and Trey. That takes you a lot of places in life and certainly on the soccer field. So, we’ll get Trey’s best…I know he’ll leave everything out there.”

The unique dynamic of the Kapsalis’ family tie to Indiana also provides Todd’s father, Jerry, the opportunity to make the same comparison.

“There are a lot of similarities,” Jerry said. “One, how mature Trey is, just like Whitey, as a person. Not as a soccer player, but as a person. I actually think Trey is ahead of where Whitey was. Trey is ahead of where Whitey was as a freshman looking back, but he’s had his dad coaching him. He’s had a lot more opportunities. But, there are similarities to them in their personalities and every time I look at Trey training, it brings to mind Whitey.”

Now, as a member of the Hoosiers, Trey has already immersed himself in the work behind the scenes.

Since as long as Whitey could remember, Indiana redshirts have always followed the same tradition. When the team travels for games, the redshirts that aspire to get better, are out there practicing on their own.

“That’s an unwritten tradition,” Whitey said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. I don’t think a senior stands up and says ‘Hey when we’re on the road, you guys who aren’t traveling, you go [practice].’ I don’t remember it being said. I just know I remember it being demonstrated when I was a freshman. It’s what they did. It’s what I did. It’s what makes the program so successful. It’s what breeds championships. It breeds winning.”

Those that have put in the work alongside Trey, have already seen his impact.

“Oh he’s awesome,” Indiana freshman Ryan Wittenbrink said. “I think all the freshman hold each other to a good standard. Obviously we like to stay loose, but definitely working hard. We know we still have an important role on the team. Obviously pushing these guys and then getting ourselves better when we’re in those spots to play.”

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Trey and Nicolette face an atypical situation. It’s not normal to be competing in college athletics together at the same university, and the two have run with the opportunity to further their relationship.

“It’s awesome,” Nicolette said. “I feel like it’s pretty rare, so we definitely both don’t take it for granted. It’s just such a great opportunity. We talk every single day. I make sure he’s doing good, he makes sure I’m doing good.  We get dinner once or twice a week and it’s awesome seeing him here, knowing he’s here. He’s in the stands during my games. I’m in the stands during his games and I’m excited to see him play and get on the field when he can.”

The two have been by each other’s side since the very beginning.

As kids, Trey and Nicolette played soccer together year after year in the backyard. The two would battle back and forth for the fun of the game, but also as a tool to push each other to improve.

Nicolette was even there for Trey during his long and anxious wait for an offer.

“We had a lot of talks just because I got it pretty late too,” Nicolette said. “It was just, being patient, believing and praying. We prayed a lot as a family. Went to church, prayed about it because we knew how bad he wanted it and it was just kinda awaiting. We waited and we knew it was supposed to work out how it was gonna.”

This relationship that goes so deep between the two of them has created a dynamic of support that is incredibly important to their progression at Indiana.

“Trey coming down here knowing that his sister was going to be here was just a blessing because while they banter, they’re respectful, and they appreciate each other’s accomplishments and they’re happy for each other,” Whitey said. “And at the same time when one of them gets a little out of hand they hold each other accountable.”

What Trey and Nicolette have together can’t be considered very surprising knowing where it all stems from.

Whitey grew up as one of five children in a Greek family defined by how they supported each other. The family’s favorite activity was sitting around the kitchen table and telling stories. A tradition that Whitey continued while raising Nicolette and Trey.

“I think it’s one of the healthiest family dynamics I have ever witnessed,” Geribaldi said. “They’re all so open with each other and they all really rely on each other for a lot of things in life which I think is so important and I think one of the things that Whitey does instill in them is to always be humble which they all are. To always care about not only themselves but more importantly those around them which they always do. They’re always just so nice with each other, they’re so open, and so loving like I can’t find another word to describe than just loving.”

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One story that certainly has been passed around the kitchen table more than a few times has been the story of Whitey’s IU career.

In fact, that story of work ethic and drive now finds itself told in its entirety in Whitey’s book “To Chase A Dream”

Whether it’s in book form or not, the love for Indiana that embodies Whitey, has been passed on to the next generation.

“He just told me it’s unbelievable,” Trey said. “The history built around this program is unreal. It’s just everything about it all the way from his time in the 80’s to here it’s unreal so I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to come here.  It was my favorite college since I was little, so I was very blessed to be a part of the program. It’s unreal.”

Now with his playing days behind him and his kids careers in front of them, Whitey has had the valuable opportunity to reflect on it all.

During his college years, Whitey strived for something that nearly seemed impossible. He strived for a dream and today he can be proud in knowing that Trey and Nicolette have done the same.

“I watched it come to fruition,” Whitey said. “I’m at a loss for words. The drive down 37, every time I’ve driven here over the last 35 years, has been special. I’m so proud of them. You decide that you want to go for something. You’re not afraid to stick your neck out, and dreams can come true.”

Eddie Cotton

I am a senior from Long Island, New York. I’m currently studying Marketing in the Kelley School of Business along with Journalism in The Media School at Indiana University. I’m was previously the Co-Sports Director of WIUX (Indiana University’s Student Radio Station) and I am a broadcaster for BTN Student U. I am an individual that tends to thrive with bringing personality to sports coverage. I want to tell stories and help others tell their own. I want to provide a unique perspective. Most importantly, I want to entertain. The Hoosier Network is the ideal place to do that. Follow me on twitter @EdwardKoton15 Email me at ekoton@umail.iu.edu. Please, pretty please, venmo me at @EdwardKoton

One Comment

  • Gary Fresen says:

    Very well done and a great story to tell.
    Eddie Cotton, thank you very much.
    From Gary – IU Soccer ’73

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