Mercedez Paino may have nearly a lifetime’s experience on the soccer field, but the Neshaminy High School alum never expected any accolades for her gameplay … especially at the high-pressure college level.
Yet recently, this Saint Francis University nursing major was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was named to the Northeast Conference All-Rookie Team, an honor bestowed upon top freshmen in the NEC.
“I was honestly really shocked when I saw Saint Francis post it because I didn’t know. I was actually on the phone with my mom and she saw the post on Instagram,” said Paino, of Langhorne. “So that was really exciting. I was so grateful that that happened to me because I wasn’t expecting anything like that. I was just very happy.”
For Paino, her inaugural season with the Red Flash was a pretty unforgettable one. On the field, she appeared in 15 matches (making seven starts), scored two goals from seven shots and logged 827 minutes on the season.
Additionally, Paino enjoyed a special moment before the season even truly began.
“It was our first scrimmage of the year against Bucknell, and I actually had a goal that game. It doesn’t count for any record or anything like that because it was a scrimmage, but that was a very big confidence booster for me because I came in, freshman, and the team never played with me before,” said Paino. “I’d never played with them besides a couple of practices in preseason.”
Still, her new teammates welcomed her with open arms and helped her adjust to her new, more intense, soccer setting.
“If something wasn’t clicking in my head, they would walk me through it,” said Paino. “They’re just very supportive, so that definitely got me through this season, for sure.”
The freshman class of the Red Flash is comprised of seven players, whom Paino described as some of her best friends. Throughout the season, they were able to lean on each other and empathize with the stress that the others were feeling because, as explained by Paino, being a college athlete is no easy feat.
“Adjusting to the school and workload was definitely rough. I have an 8 a.m. class Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I wake up, go to class until around 1 p.m. and then, you have time to go eat, and then you try to cram in homework before practice. You go to practice at 5:45 p.m., practice for two hours, and then take a shower and study. So that’s basically the day, every single day,” she said. “But you get used to it. You get on a schedule and you just make it work.”
Plus, it helps that Paino truly enjoys soccer, something she’s been playing since the age of 2 when her parents signed her up for an indoor league. It was love at first kick, with Paino continuing to play during her years at Neshaminy. Though she gave lacrosse a try, this was a short-lived endeavor.
At Neshaminy, she was an undefeated PIAA District One Champion in 2022, the 2022 Neshaminy Female Athlete of the Year, and served as team captain as a junior and senior, just to name a few accomplishments.
“I definitely liked being captain. It put me in the role of, I needed to show up for my team every practice, every game,” she said. “Being a leader and having that role, I think, prepared me for college, too, because I had to be on my game, every single time. That helped me going into college because you can have a bad practice, but you have to show up every single time. You’re fighting for a spot.”
After thriving on the Neshaminy team, it was a no-brainer for Paino to continue in college. However, the recruitment process is not for the faint of heart. Paino praised her father for being instrumental in her mission to secure a spot on a collegiate-level team. He aided her in contacting coaches, creating a highlight reel and locating schools with a good team and nursing program.
This all led them to Saint Francis, and Paino couldn’t be happier with how things turned out.
Looking ahead, Paino has a clear vision of what she wants her nursing career to look like. Post-graduation, she intends to go back to school and earn her CRNA degree, and hopefully work at a children’s hospital.
Still, this doesn’t mean she’ll be saying “goodbye” to her favorite sport. In fact, her passion might take her farther away than her college campus in Loretto.
“It’s not a set plan yet, but I do have descendants from Puerto Rico. My trainer back home from Max Futbol, he can help me get on their national team,” she said. “So if I wanted to do that, I could, but I don’t really know yet. I’m gonna see where my career takes me with nursing and everything.”
As Paino revels in the success of her first season with the Red Flash, she’s able to share some words of advice for rising freshmen who hope to follow a similar trajectory.
“It’s gonna be hard and it’s gonna be a big adjustment, but you just have to fight every day, especially with soccer. You have to show up to practice. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I can play around with the ball.’ No, it’s hard work,” she said. “It’s gonna be hard, but you’ll get through it and you get so many good friends out of it. In the end, it’s so worth it.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com