Gabby Zarnegar turned tough start in soccer career into great leadership

Jacob Martella

As a freshman, Gabby Zarnegar felt lost. Despite seeing substantial playing time, Zarnegar bounced from position to position and struggled to find stability.

That changed her junior season. 

New head coach Angela Kelly gave Zarnegar the stability she sought, helping Zarnegar find her role. Now, with her senior year winding down, Zarnegar is a strong leader for a Longhorn team that has a shot to win the Big 12 tournament this week.

“I’m more confident going into the tournament than any other year,” Zarnegar said. “I just need to do my role as a senior.”

Zarnegar’s Texas career got off to a fast start. She played in 20 of the team’s 21 games and posted her first career goal in her freshman debut.

But things went downhill from there. Zarnegar got sick near the end of the season and saw less playing time. When Zarnegar did get on the pitch, she had a hard time finding her place on the field.

“I didn’t know where to go,” Zarnegar said. “I went from outside midfielder to outside forward to mid center.”

Her fortunes changed with a new head coach. Then-head coach Chris Petrucelli stepped down and Kelly took over the job. With the change, it gave Zarnegar a chance to start anew, establishing a consistent role on the team. 

“[Kelly] put a lot of power into the player’s hand,” Zarnegar said. “That really helped me become a great leader.”

Kelly, who didn’t watch any film of the players and didn’t worry about them prior to coming to Texas — allowing everyone a fresh start — said she’s just there for all her players. 

“She knows she can call me at any time and I’ll be there,” Kelly said.

Zarnegar found her spot on the field as a forward and midfielder. She prides herself on being a nuisance for opponents in the middle of the pitch, leading Kelly to call her the team’s “Energizer Bunny.”

She’s been able to turn her bad early experiences into one of her best characteristics.

“When things start to go bad for us, she doesn’t let us get down,” sophomore forward Kelsey Shimmick said.

With only five career goals, Zarnegar hasn’t exactly lit up the box score. But the plays not shown in the stats — her hustle and fighting for the ball — do not go unnoticed by her teammates.

“When she goes in for a hard tackle and doesn’t give up, it makes you want to get the ball the way she does,” Shimmick said.

Zarnegar said she will probably be done with soccer once her college career is over, and with a spot in the NCAA tournament not guaranteed for the Longhorns, each game could be her last.

But she isn’t thinking about that. Instead, Zarnegar is focused on leading Texas to a Big 12 tournament title. 

“It would be the pinnacle of everything I want this season,” Zarnegar said. “It’s been a long road for us. I feel like this year it’s our time.”