Ali Sonier was in for a surprise as practice wrapped up on February 18th and the team gathered to hear who the winner of that week’s team “Love the Battle” challenge was. As head coach Jenny Hansen began to speak, Sonier felt the energy shift as those around her began to pick up on the fact that something different was happening.
“I guess some of them knew—like as soon as [Jenny] started talking about it; I just didn’t understand it,” Sonier said.
What was happening was something Sonier had been working for her whole career: She was being awarded a full scholarship to compete for Minnesota. And lucky for Gopher fans, the special moment was caught on video.
Sonier, who just finished her sophomore season with Minnesota, has quickly and quietly established herself as a staple in three of four lineups, and she’s competed in all but one meet since becoming a Gopher. For Hansen, trusting Sonier is easy because of her worth ethic and reliability in practice.
“She’s a very coachable athlete,” Hansen said. “She’s always looking you in the eye and is always trying to do exactly what you’re telling her to do—and she really wants to do it. ”
For most athletes a full scholarship is the ultimate dream, but the recruitment process can be riddled with challenges that are out of both the athlete’s and sometimes the coach’s control. For Sonier, she came to the attention of the Gopher coaches late in the game, which limited their ability to present her with a full scholarship at the time of her commitment. Instead, what they were able to offer was one year of aid, after which Sonier would be considered a recruited walk-on athlete.
“[Ali was] someone we didn’t know about until very late in the recruiting process,” Hansen said. “We had limited opportunities for her at the time; what we were able to offer was the best we could do.”
“There were a couple of other schools that I was considering [at the time],” Sonier said. “But as soon as I was at Minnesota, and I walked-on to visit, I knew that it was the one.”
The overall culture at Minnesota made it easy for Sonier to picture herself as part of the Gopher family, despite the fact that she would have to consider the possibility of shouldering some of the financial burden herself. “I felt at home right away when I walked on campus,” Sonier said. “The coaches and the team—they just included me right away. That was the biggest thing that drew me to Minnesota.”
Recruiting can be a stressful process for both the athlete and the coaches, and for Hansen, transparency is the most important thing. “I never want [the athlete] to feel like we’re dangling a carrot in front of them and not be able to deliver. I just feel like that’s so unfair,” Hansen said.
For the Gophers, there is no difference between a scholarship athlete and a walk-on when it comes to the expectations set by Hansen and her coaching staff. “We would never take anybody on that wouldn’t have a chance to compete,” Hansen said. “It’s just so much work, and it’s so hard to work so hard and not be in the lineup. So we’re pretty picky.”
Even though it’s not possible for every athlete on the team to be on scholarship, Hansen emphasized that athletes are held to the same high standards and given the same opportunities regardless of their signing status. “They really have all the same opportunities as scholarship athletes, except we just can’t pay for their schooling,” Hansen said. “Everything else is the same for us when it comes to training, apparel, opportunities, travel—you wouldn’t know the difference. We are very mindful of how we treat every athlete on our team. It’s an incredible experience whether you have a scholarship or not.”
The walk-on athletes have also proven to be vital members of the team, as Sonier has demonstrated over the course of her career. She has been an especially key component to the Gophers’ incredible success on beam this year, competing in the high pressure lead-off position. “It’s a great routine to get us going—high level difficulty, great execution all the way through,” Hansen said. Luckily for her teammates, it is a role Sonier enjoys. Hansen laughed as she continued: “She loves that spot. She likes to go early on, and she likes to go first. It’s a great position for all of us because we have great faith and trust in her.”
Sonier’s ability to consistently hit under pressure and her overall success during her collegiate career made it easy for anyone to see why she was granted the scholarship once the money became available. For Hansen, it was something she planned on doing from the moment Sonier signed onto the team. “We said we would keep looking to see if something came up, that she’d be the first person we would go to.”
The coaches wanted the moment to be special and tried to find the best opportunity to present the scholarship to Sonier, who thought she was simply receiving a T-shirt for winning that week’s team challenge. Before she even fully processed what was happening, she was surrounded by teammates, who were crying along with her. “It was super exciting to see how supportive they were and how hard they thought I worked to deserve it,” Sonier said. “That meant a lot to me. Their support and happiness for my success was the biggest thing.”
It was an emotional moment for Hansen as well. “It was really special for us. I know any time that we get to do that with an athlete, I have a hard time talking [about it] because I’m so emotional and so happy for them. All of us were in tears.”
Expectations will be even greater for the Gophers next year, as they work to build on the success of their record-breaking 2020 season. Instead of dwelling on the added pressure, however, Sonier is focused on what she can do to help her team: “I think next season I want to take what I’ve learned from these first two years and just be consistent.”
While earning the scholarship was certainly an important accomplishment for Sonier, the dedication to her teammates and being part of the Gopher family has always come first, and that will never change.
Article by Kalley Leer
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