Destination: Draft Day

Tucker Judkins/Daily Trojan

A women’s soccer mural in the John McKay Center proudly flaunts the program’s history on big glass squares: two national championships, 14 All-Americans and 77 All-Pac-12 Conference players. At the end of her collegiate career, senior forward Leah Pruitt has checked nearly all the boxes.

And if the wall was keeping count of professional players, she would have raised that number, too.

It was the 75th minute of the 2016 Women’s College Cup Championship when Pruitt chased down the ball as it headed out of bounds, kept it on the field and beat a defender to cross it to an open teammate for USC’s second goal of the game, which broke a 1-1 tie to secure the title.   

“Ninety-five percent of the people who play the game would see that ball heading toward out of bounds, and they would stop running,” head coach Keidane McAlpine said. “They would slow down; they would give up on it; they would wait for the throw-in.”

But Pruitt’s competitive edge wouldn’t let her watch the ball roll away, and her unparalleled speed propelled her to save it. McAlpine reflected on the brilliance of that assist, noting “the pace, the power, the drive, the determination.”  

And it was only Pruitt’s first year as a Trojan.

By her junior year, she earned All Pac-12 honors and rounded it out with All-American recognition as a senior.

Much of Pruitt’s success can be credited to one factor: Defenders don’t want to deal with her. She will outrun players, shove anyone who shoves her and play the entire field to control the ball. Her six game-winning goals this season — the most in the Pac-12, —have proven that defenders can’t contain her.

“She’s a beast,” McAlpine said. “She’s so powerful. But, she’s so elusive.”

She never gives up on a play, and she’s been the same player since she was seven years old, when she touched the ball for the first time. Jalen Woodward, junior midfielder and Pruitt’s best friend, remembers playing against her in elementary school, even though they didn’t meet and become friends until they played at USC.

“She was always someone that we had to mark and make sure we knew where she was,” Woodward said. “She was always on our scouting reports because she was so good, even at a young age.”

Pruitt’s speed puts her above the rest, bringing out her natural drive to win and a competitive streak that can’t — and shouldn’t — be suppressed.

“She’s a competitor like no other,” Woodward said, without hesitation.

But off the field, she’s just Leah, walking around campus with her soft, easygoing smile, emanating a joy as contagious as the effort she puts into practice and bringing laughter to every team meeting. Pruitt’s personality flickers during competition when she gets trucked by a defender and stands right back up, flashing that powerful smile.

“It’s amazing to give that kind of effort all the time, be exhausted all the time, but smile through any and everything that happens,” McAlpine said.

She’s dynamic and selfless — a combination that drives her as a forward to defend from up top and help her teammates out all over the field.

“I know my teammates are going to work hard for me,” Pruitt said. “So I want to work hard for them. I’ll chase down any ball.”

Pruitt leads by example, always giving her best on every rep of every drill in practice, and it shows on the field. Whether it’s the first minute of the game or the last in overtime, she’s working as if the game is on the line and pushing her teammates to do the same. Pruitt has never been the most vocal, but when she speaks, people listen.

“People look [to her] to fuel their own fire,” Woodward said.

It’s only fitting that she’s the team motivator, the same role that Pruitt takes on in her hyper-athletic family of five. When she doesn’t feel like getting up to work out, she’ll do it anyway.

“She knows what she wants, and she knows in order to get it, she has to work hard,” said Pruitt’s father, Aaron. “That’s a motivational factor for myself, my wife, her brother and sister. It always has been.”

It comes from those early weekend mornings when the Pruitt household started rumbling at 7 a.m. to get the girls to soccer, her brother to wrestling practice and parents to the gym. As a former Division I athlete, her father always stressed the importance of getting up and starting days early. They hardly ever slept in.

It was probably this very drive that pushed her to transfer from San Diego State after her freshman year. According to McAlpine, she could sense there was something more for her.

Pruitt’s undying commitment to her career flew her and her father from Los Angeles to Chicago on Jan. 10 for the National Women’s Soccer League Draft. They were expecting her to get drafted in the second or third round, until they were assigned the first seats in the front row, right in the corner. They moved to sit with Ally Prisock, Pruitt’s teammate at USC and fellow draftee, but organizers promptly moved them back to their assigned seats.

That’s when Aaron knew Leah’s name would be called quicker than they thought.

And it was — in the first round, fifth overall to the North Carolina Courage. McAlpine had a good feeling that Pruitt wouldn’t get past the sixth pick, but he let her have the raw experience.

“It was really surreal,” Pruitt said in reflection.

Her father wasn’t shocked. He watched his youngest daughter, who had always wanted to play professional soccer, wrap her new team’s scarf around her neck, absorbing the emotions of the moment.

“To have one of her goals in life be fulfilled, and to be there firsthand and see it — it was tremendous,” Aaron said.

Pruitt stood in front of viewers across the country and thanked her supporters from USC. On Feb. 28, she’ll be leaving behind the only state she’s ever called home to begin her career as a professional athlete, while finishing two online classes at USC to graduate in May. She’ll earn a degree in sociology and a minor in forensics and criminality.

“I feel the same,” Pruitt said of going pro. “I’m not gonna feel like a pro until I’m there, playing with the best players I’ve ever played with. Right now, I don’t really have a name for myself there, so I’m just working to keep doing what I do to get minutes.”

In his 18-year head coaching career, McAlpine has seen impressive Trojan talent come and go — namely Amy Rodriguez, the first overall pick in 2009 and current U.S. Women’s National Team forward, along with midfielder Morgan Andrews, the third overall pick in 2017. But to him, Pruitt still stands in a category of her own.

“I think there are players that have gone pro from here that are maybe more talented, just individually [on the ball],” McAlpine said. “But I have a hard time thinking that any of them will have a better career because of her joy and the way she’s gonna work at being the best.”