Free of foot problems, Panko scoring more than ever for Notre Dame soccer

By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

Notre Dame’s Olivia Panko is defended by Hightstown’s Jamie Seip during a game Sept. 26. John Blaine photo

Olivia Panko is a leader on the Notre Dame High girls’ soccer team in several ways. She leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and five assists; she helps lead by example in practice and games with four years of varsity experience; and she serves as one of the team’s leaders in their Bible Study program that was originated by the ND football team.

Despite her Baptist upbringing, Panko is a member of Notre Dame’s Catholic Athletes for Christ organization and considers it a key to her development.

“Faith is very important to me,” she said. “I go to church every Sunday, my parents made it a very important thing to pray every night and every day before all my meals.”

As for how the Bible Study helps the Irish as a team, Panko said, “I think it’s good to bring us all together and talk about our faith and just realize there’s something bigger than us out there and he’s always watching over us. God’s always helping us. It’s just a nice thing to bring us all together and notice our faith.”

Much like soccer fans notice Panko’s talents. Her desire to play on varsity as a freshman was fueled by wanting to play at least one year with big sister Julia. Olivia not only made the team, but collected six goals and four assists. As a sophomore that stats flipped to four goals and six assists, and those numbers reversed last year back to six goals and four assists.

She has exploded this season, helping Notre Dame to an 11-4 mark entering the Mercer County Tournament.

“It’s been interesting to see her develop and her skills grow and get better,” coach Victoria Camera said. “Just like her sister, she works hard on and off the field; it’s something they both excel at for sure. It’s important to consistently put in the work, not just do it some days. I think she embodies that and does that well.”

Panko’s scoring comes in bunches, as she has registered two three-goal games and two two-goal games, while also scoring single goals in two others. The good news is that she is playing healthy for the first time in several years, as she suffered from a ganglion cyst in her foot.

“It’s like big balls of nerves that just hurt if I play too much at a time,” Panko said. “I’ve been doing a lot of exercises and stuff to help myself with that. Last year I had to sit out every other practice and two practices a week so I could rest it, or I would have been in too much pain with it.”

The hardest part was doing nothing.

“I had to kind of stay mentally tough,” she said. “It was discouraging to be out every other day when everyone else was playing around me and practicing. I missed a few games but mostly just practices. This year it feels a lot better.”

Her mental toughness remains even after her injury is gone. Camera noted that it’s hard to tell if Panko has had a good or bad day in school when she comes out to the field, as her emotions remain steady.

“She comes to soccer with an open mind and is always willing to have a good practice regardless of the day she’s had,” the coach said. “I think she kind of leaves her day at the sideline off the field and is ready to practice and play every single day. I never have to re-focus her or bring her back in, she’s able to do that.”

The same can be said of Panko when she is shooting the ball, as her focus is always on the right area when her foot connects.

“She stays over the ball, she stays composed, and she’s able to take a look up and see where the goalie’s at and find the open part of the net or back of the net,” Camera said. “Some girls forget to take that last peek up. Some of our shots this year have been right to the other team’s goalie; when we need to find the back of the net. She’s able to do that.”

The result has been a strong regular season for Notre Dame, which hopes to make an equally strong run in both the Mercer County and Non-Public A tournaments. After that, Panko will re-join Julia at Stevens Institute of Technology.

“She’s had a very big influence on me,” Panko said. “I always used to train with her. I worked really, really hard to play with her for one year in high school, and now I can play with her one year in college as well.”

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