Herricks girls soccer star Kolega a jet-setter and standout in two countries

Herricks girls soccer star Kolega a jet-setter and standout in two countries
Herricks High School senior Kristiana Kolega (No. 11 in black) is also a member of Croatia's U-19 women's national team. Photo: Courtesy of Kristiana Kolega

There are standard, decades-old excuses public school teachers are used to hearing from students when it comes to why they were not in class or didn’t turn in their homework.

I was sick.
My family was at Disney World.
I had too much other stuff to do.
Yep, educators have heard them all. But Kristiana Kolega, senior at Herricks High School, has thrown a different one at her teachers the last few years:

“I was busy playing international soccer for the country my grandparents came from.”

That’s not one that gets trotted out too often. But the 17-year-old senior doesn’t have an active imagination: that’s actually what she’s doing when missing math and science class.

Kolega’s grandparents were born and raised in Croatia, and since she was a child her parents, Claudio and Daniela, have taken Kristina and younger brothers Niko and Marko back to that country during summer vacations and other time off from school.

When Kristina was around 10, she recalled, she was playing in a local league on an island near Zadar when she was invited to come train with a local youth development team. One thing led to another, and each time Kristina visited Croatia she would train with youth teams and continue to get better at the sport.

Eventually, as a teenager, she was asked to join the Croatian girls national U-16 team, and play tournaments and matches with them. So since 2020, the jet-lagged teen has flown several times per year 10 hours back to Croatia for training sessions and games with her team; she’s now on the U-19 team, with a decent chance of making the Croatian women’s national team someday.

“It’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of missing things here, but it’s such an incredible experience for me,” Kolega said after a recent Highlanders practice. “I love the people there, I love the country, and it’s an incredible honor and opportunity to be able to play for them.”

Kolega is a soccer fanatic; in addition to starring at midfield for Herricks, she plays club soccer for SUSA, a top Long Island program, and of course for Croatia.

Her national team duties mean she sometimes misses weeks at a time of school, and unfortunately for Herricks soccer, last year had to miss a portion of the high school season as well.

“Every time she comes home she has a great story to tell,” Herricks coach Alexa Riegel said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity, to represent the country of your ancestors, and we’re very proud of her.”

Kolega said her teachers at Herricks are very understanding, and that she uses the long flights and idle time in hotels across Europe (she’s played international matches in Bulgaria and Poland, among other places) to fire up her Chromebook and do some work.

“The girls on the (Croatia) team make fun of me for always doing homework in our hotel,” she said with a laugh. “But I have to do it to try to keep up!”

Kolega’s good friend and club soccer teammate, Sofia Bigeni of New Hyde Park High School, said as hard as it is seeing her friend go away for long stretches, it’s totally worth it.

“We watch her matches and I’m texting her and it’s still like we’re connected even though she’s so far away,” Bigeni said. “And it’s so obvious that when she comes back from playing (internationally), she’s so much more confident and skillful.”

Kolega said she tries to bring some of the American-style physicality to her play in Croatia, and attempts to use the European-style skill set and precision passing back to Long Island.

“It’s a very different kind of soccer in both places, but you try to learn and get better playing both styles,” Kolega said. “It’s definitely helped my game.”

Riegel said that Kolega, who has committed to play for Division I University of Maryland-Baltimore County next year, has a non-stop motor that powers the Herricks attack.

In 2022, Kolega helped Herricks reach the second round of the state playoffs.

“She’s in great shape because she plays all the time, and she has great footwork,” Riegel said. “She controls the center mid and she runs the show when she’s out there.”

Riegel admitted that it’s disruptive to the Herricks squad when Kolega has to miss time because of Croatian team responsibilities, but never holds it against her player.

“Being on that stage and getting to develop her game like she can, it’s just so incredible for her,” Riegel said. “And we’ve all become Croatia soccer fans now; the kids were having World Cup watch parties last year when (Croatia) was playing, it was awesome.” 

Kolega said high school soccer, with less international pressure, is “so much fun for me. I can just forget about everything and play with these awesome girls.”

With the season underway, Kolega hopes to help the Highlanders advance farther than the second round of the Class AA playoffs, which is where they were stopped last season.

After that, Kolega has some more international tournaments to play before graduating from Herricks and matriculating to UMBC, whose coaches, she said, are all in favor of her continued trips to Croatia.

“They think it’s great for me, and that’s one reason I’m so excited to play there at UMBC,” Kolega said. “I love the coaches, the girls on the team, I know it’s the right place for me.”

And for someone who’s been to a lot of places in the last few years, that’s saying something.

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