Cinco Ranch High girls soccer coach Fredy Sanguinetti knew he wouldn’t get star player Ali Russell’s services for a full four years.
And though Russell told Sanguinetti during her freshman year three years ago that she would not play her senior season in 2019, instead electing to graduate early and enroll at Texas A&M to get a head start academically and athletically, Sanguinetti didn’t think it would come to that.
He thought she’d be gone even before then.
“From day one, I always thought the USA team was going to take her,” Sanguinetti said. “I knew she was at Cinco on borrowed time, whether it was to graduate early or the U.S. team was going to pick her up.”
In three years at Cinco Ranch, Russell, who also played for the U.S. national team from 2015-2017, was a three-time all-state selection at forward. She set district and school records for goals (120) and assists (51). She led the Cougars to the state tournament twice, each time being named to the all-tournament team.
And yet through it all, Russell hardly wavered in her decision to bypass her senior season.
“The only moment I ever second-guessed myself was when we lost state last year,” said Russell, referring to a loss in penalty kicks to Flower Mound Marcus in the state semifinals. “I was like, OK, so if I stay, do you think we could win state? It was a big thing. I wanted to win state so bad, and we were so close so many times. Even my dad, for the first time ever, asked me, ‘OK, so are you sure?’ And I just had to be strong. I know, in the long run, this would be better for me.”
It is the norm, if not the standard, at Texas A&M for women’s soccer players to graduate high school early and enroll in the spring to get a head start.
“I’m not nervous for the school part, at alI,” Russell said. “I also don’t want to go into college having the mindset that I’m going to play. I want to be able to work for my spot. I’m nervous for that soccer aspect of wanting new people to like me, and for the first practice. I don’t want to play like trash, because that’s the first thing they remember. Once I get through that, I’ll be fine.”
It was during her eighth grade year that Russell knew she wanted to play college soccer. She also knew she wanted to play at Texas A&M, where her dad and sisters attended.
So Russell established a plan to graduate high school early and get to College Station during what would be the spring semester of her senior year.
Three of four Aggie signees for the Class of 2019 are graduating early.
“I’m excited for the challenge of working to be a better player myself and better the team I’m on,” said Russell, who graduates from Cinco Ranch on January 24, 18 days after she stepped onto the Texas A&M campus. “I like challenges. I love competition. I think it’s going to be a whole different level that teaches me so many more things on and off the field.”
Russell said she’s excited for the next chapter in her career. She wants to play pro soccer, ideally for the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Competition has always been the bedrock of Russell’s ilk. She started playing soccer at 3 years old. Six years later, she began competing with the Albion Hurricanes of the ECNL, the top level of club soccer.
It was the high level of play and quality coaching with Albion that Russell credits for most of her success as a player. As team captain of the 2015 U-18 All-Stars and 2016 U-18 All-Stars, Russell led the Hurricanes to a defeat of the Japan national team and a tie with the Guana national team.
“The level of play … honestly, the team I was on two years ago could probably beat college teams I’ve seen play,” Russell said. “Our whole team was committed to DI colleges. We were stacked, and it was so much what I needed to prepare myself to go to college.”
From day one, Russell established herself as a gifted talent with the ball.
“Her speed was something I hadn’t seen before, but the way she picked up dribbles and the way she was with hard work … I hadn’t seen that at that age,” said Sanguinetti, who coached Russell in club soccer when she was 8 years old. “Every day for her was at 100 miles an hour.”
Sanguinetti coached Russell for about 18 months in club soccer. Then the two paired up again at Cinco Ranch.
During Russell’s tenure, Cinco Ranch went 68-5-10. Russell was a coach on the field for Sanguinetti by leading drills, helping put away equipment after practices, and simply being a positive, demonstrative voice on the field.
Few players matched the coach’s passion for the sport and winning.
“How can the girl next to her not run her hardest when Ali, a top-level player, is running her absolute hardest during a practice sprint?” Sanguinetti said. “My coaching staff and I will always back her up.”
Last semester, Russell brought her lunch every morning to keep in Sanguinetti’s classroom refrigerator. It invited conversation between the two, something Russell wanted to keep going.
“We have a strong enough relationship to where I won’t be hidden from Cinco soccer,” Russell said. “Once it hit this past season … every time he saw me, he’d be like, ‘OK, so are you failing so you can stay and play next semester?’ Stuff like that. But he wasn’t mad. He would joke around, and I feel like he’s happy for me.”
He is. Sanguinetti said Russell will be sorely missed. But he preaches to his team about the journey, not the end result, and he and the Cougars can’t help but be anything but pleased with Russell’s next step in her career.
“As good as she is, she’s always trying to get better,” Sanguinetti said. “She’s just an amazing kiddo.”