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This September, a toy train emblazoned with the Syracuse logo sat on the floor of Erin O’Grady Gatto’s kindergarten classroom. The wooden toy is the Syracuse women’s soccer all-time leading goal scorer’s favorite, which she added to her class’ collection after her son grew out of fiddling with it. Conversation about her collegiate career is rare now, she said, but while Gatto was tidying up her room, a janitor walked in, saw the train and began peppering her with questions.
“Did you go there?” Gatto recalled the janitor asking.
“I played soccer there,” Gatto said.
“No you didn’t,” the janitor responded. “That’s Division I.”
“Look it up,” Gatto said. The janitor stepped out, surfed Google and came back less than an hour later.
“Are you kidding me?” the janitor said. “You didn’t even just play. You were like the star.”
Gatto’s record in career goals has sat untouched in Syracuse’s record book for the last two decades. After she stopped chasing a professional soccer career in 2008 to settle down and fully focus on teaching, Gatto became a mom with two kids and now teaches at Nayaug Elementary School (Connecticut). She’s over 20 years removed from her college career, over 200 miles away from where she secured her spot in SU history.
The former striker said she would love for her 49-goal record to be broken — it would mean her former team is “kicking butt.” But this season, Syracuse recorded a 4-12-1 record, scored just 13 goals and continued a 20-year drought without a NCAA Tournament bid. By the time Gatto ended her sophomore year in 1998, the Orange had earned their first-ever berth. She notched 15 goals that season.
“She was by far one of the best players to come through that program until this day,” said April Kater, who served as SU’s head coach from 1996-2003. “There’s no question.”
When Kater first started recruiting Gatto out of high school, though, she didn’t even expect to land her. Gatto was a blue-chip recruit, Kater said, known throughout the Northeast as an explosive, pure goal scorer and a Parade All-American. Gatto lived nearly 30 minutes from UConn, a perennial NCAA championship contender in the ‘90s. Meanwhile, Syracuse was entering just its second season in program history.
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Kater took Gatto through the normal cycles of the head coach’s recruiting process: a home visit in Gatto’s living room, a campus tour and frequent conversations to build rapport. By her senior year, Gatto whittled down her choices to UConn and SU. She said she chose Syracuse because she wanted to be part of a budding program. SU’s School of Education was another factor — Gatto wanted to become a teacher after working with kids at her family’s daycare and helping out in her older sister’s classroom.
During her first few games as a freshman, Kater placed Gatto at outside midfield. But against St. Bonaventure, Stacy Shanning received a red card late in the game, leaving Syracuse with a hole in its attack. Gatto shifted into a striker position against Rutgers three days later and scored two goals. Kater never moved her back.
“She was a relentless goal scorer. She (loved) to get points,” Kater said. “So when you have a player like that, they have the ability to change the game in a moment.”
The then-freshman ended her first season with 17 goals, breaking Syracuse’s career goal record. Gatto kept building on the total and her scoring skills, with Kater, a former forward, teaching her how to break down defenses by reading the tendencies of opponents’ back lines and capitalizing on empty space. After finishing her senior season with 49 career goals, Gatto entered into her coach’s Manley Field House office and sat on a couch during the spring of 2001.
As the Women’s United Soccer Association formed as a new professional league, Kater told Gatto she had a shot at going pro. Once she graduated, Gatto said she “wasn’t ready to be done,” feeling as if she lost her identity after her college career ended. She took Kater’s advice and tried out for the Boston Renegades, a semi-pro team, and played for two seasons. Gatto made it to the WUSA’s Boston Breakers in 2003, but the league folded that year.
To make money, Gatto kickstarted her teaching career in 2004 while also joining a semi-pro team, the New England Mutiny. As her teammates trained at college facilities to stay in shape, Gatto ran around local cul de sacs and juggled her two jobs. She retired from the pitch in 2008, and the Mutiny’s owner, Joe Ferrara, said the team retired her No. 9 jersey number.
(O’Grady Gatto) was by far one of the best players to come through that program until this day. There’s no question.
April Kater, SU women’s soccer coach from 1996-2003
Gatto raised a family and teaches both in the classroom and on the pitch as a youth soccer coach. She estimated she’s taught hundreds of students, including Kater’s nephew.
“It just depends what I’m teaching — am I teaching letters and reading or am I teaching a passing technique and how to find a mark?” Gatto said. “I’m trying to help them take responsibility and ownership.”
The former player said she still talks with Kater, and soccer remains important to her. When Gatto taught third and fourth graders, she would have her students write a personal narrative about a special person or special place. Gatto used Kater and a soccer pitch as models. In her kindergarten classroom, students all know her favorite number is nine — her former jersey number.
Teaching 4- and 5-year-olds in masks and with COVID-19 protocols poses an abundance of challenges, Gatto said. But whenever she has a tough day or week, behind her desk is a bulletin board tacked with cards and messages from students and parents, reminding her to keep pursuing her career as a teacher.
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