In any other year, there is no way on earth Julia Baldwin would even contemplate putting soccer before studies.
But 2006 isn't exactly an ordinary year where the statuesque central defender is concerned.
It is, of course, the year in which FIFA's Under-20 Women's World Cup Finals will feature New Zealand as Oceania's representatives for the first time ever, and the Wellingtonian is leaving no stone unturned in her efforts to be part of the squad which travels to Russia in August.
“I want to become a physio”, says the talented stopper, who also harbours ambitions of making the senior New Zealand team. “But I've put my studies on hold till next year, because my focus in 2006 is football, football and more football!”
And you can hardly blame her for doing so, given the way things have panned out for the New Zealand Under-20 women's squad since last October. Starting with a friendly against North Harbour on the first weekend of the month, they took part in the Lion Foundation National Women's League, finishing top of the standings following the round-robin phase of the competition.
Julia and her team-mates then enjoyed a wee break before getting back into the swing of things in January, as they embarked on what will be the most demanding year of their footballing lives thus far in their embryonic international careers.
For the Paraparaumu College graduate, there were two trips to Australia before the end of February, once as part of the NZ Secondary Schoolgirls squad, then, a matter of days after returning, with the Under-20s.
This proved to be a memorable trip for the central defender. “I scored the only goal of my international career to date when netting the winner in a 2-1 triumph over the New South Wales Institute of Sport squad”, she beamed, “before making my first appearances in full U-20 international action when coming on as a substitute in both clashes with Australia”.
Following their return from the Asian Confederation's newest member nation, the Kiwi girls set their sights on the Oceania qualifying tournament in Samoa, and after trouncing Tonga in a pre-tournament international - Julia's first chance to proudly sport the silver fern over her heart from the start of an Under-20 international fixture, it was onto the qualifiers.
New Zealand, of course, emerged as the newly crowned queens of Oceania women's football with their emphatic triumph, with Julia adding to her growing tally of caps throughout the tournament with appearances against Vanuatu and Tonga in round-robin action, and Papua New Guinea in the semi-final.
“Winning the Oceania U-20 qualifying tournament has to rank among my most memorable achievements in the game”, says the former U-14 and U-16 Academy representative. But now it was time for the hard work to start!
Since returning home, Julia has had little chance to put her feet up and rest on her laurels. Indeed, by her own admission, she has been training harder than at any time in the twelve years she's been playing the game.
“I followed my brother, Sam, into the game when I was seven. I started out at Raumati Hearts, which became Kapiti Coast United. I played in central midfield when I was little, and quite enjoyed that, but when you play with the boys, you tend to end up in the positions they don't want to play in, and my life as a defender began.
“I stayed at United until 2002, when I moved to North Wellington and began my senior level career. That year, we were beaten in the Kelly Cup Final by Seatoun, a club I went on to join three years later, and with whom I won a Kelly Cup winner's medal at the end of that first season. We were also beaten semi-finalists in the National Knockout Cup, which was, of course, a disappointment”.
That is hardly an appropriate word to describe Julia's burgeoning representative career. A member of Capital Soccer's U-13 squad in 2000, she appeared in the federation's championship-winning U-16 squad at the 2003 National Tournament, and the following year made her debut for the senior squad.
“Beating Auckland to win the 2004 National Women's League Grand Final is another of my most memorable career moments to date”, says the bright-eyed star of that particular match. “Being named MVP of the final - that was a huge bonus. I was stunned!”
Now back home after the U-20s' trip to Argentina, where Julia featured in the victory over River Plate and the second international against an Argentine Selection, comprising senior and U-20 players, the tall teenager is looking forward to celebrating her nineteenth birthday in July, and will be hoping to get a belated birthday present from NZ U-20s coach, John Herdman.
“To be named as one of the players to represent New Zealand at the U-20 Women's World Cup Finals in Russia in August would be the pinnacle of my career thus far, and an awesome way to acknowledge the immense contribution made by my parents, Diane and John - I cannot thank them enough for the support and encouragement they have given me”.
Julia Baldwin's Favourites
A couple of members of the Julia Baldwin Fan Club, Samoan branch, pose with their favourite NZ star