*Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in [the February edition of The Mustang Connection, TMU’s official magazine.](https://www.masters.edu/the-mustang-connection)*
One day, someone will stand behind a podium at a fancy ceremony and try to put Stephanie Soares’ remarkable career at The Master’s University into perspective.
The speaker will highlight Soares’ otherworldly physical gifts. Her 6-foot-6 frame. Her long arms. Her enviable hand-eye coordination.
They’ll talk about how she could have played basketball at UCLA, UConn or Texas. They’ll remark that she broke a TMU record with 10 blocks in her first game. They’ll do their best to describe what it was like watching Soares record 35 points and 22 rebounds in a conference tournament championship game.
Still, such a speech would miss the mark. Absent would be one of the most important moments of Soares’ time at TMU, one that took place in an empty gymnasium on an otherwise forgettable September night in 2020. That night, Soares sat on a cold gym floor, sobbing and telling anyone who’d listen that she was sorry. So, so terribly sorry.
That night, Soares tore two ligaments in her left knee, injuries that sidelined her for an entire season. In His infinite wisdom, God used that time to rehab more than her body.
He reminded her of what it means to play basketball as an act of worship. And He reminded her that He, not Soares, controls the future.
Soares was featured in the February edition of The Mustang Connection.
That’s usually the first thing people want to know when they hear that a hyper-skilled, 6-foot-6 woman plays basketball at The Master’s University.
In context, the choice makes sense. Soares hails from Brazil, where her parents, Rogerio and Susan, have served for more than 20 years as missionaries with Athletes in Action.
Rogerio played basketball at Master’s, and Susan, a hooper at the University of Texas, later coached at TMU. By the time Stephanie came to Santa Clarita, her older siblings, Tim and Jessica, had already joined the Mustang basketball teams.
More than anything, Stephanie’s decision came down to fit. She wanted to grow in her walk with Christ, and at TMU she’d be trained to play basketball for the glory of God alongside teammates who wanted the same thing.
But somewhere along the line, Soares’ focus began to blur. Maybe it happened while she was playing travel ball in Texas, drawing attention from dozens of universities across the country. Maybe it was the first time someone mentioned the WNBA as an attainable goal. Maybe it was shortly before she arrived at TMU when she played for Brazil’s senior national team in a pre-Olympic qualifier.
The when is less important than the what: Soares became fixated on a future in professional basketball. The goal was admirable. But instead of continuing to work hard and entrusting the future to the Lord, Soares functioned as if everything depended on her. She trained to the point of exhaustion, yet still worried about whether she was running enough, shooting enough, lifting enough. She feared falling short of the lofty expectations she perceived others as holding for her and that she held for herself.
“I wanted to be the best, not in a prideful way, but I felt I had to do all these things to get to where I wanted to go,” she says. “I had a go-go-go mentality.”
That mindset limited her joy and the depth of her relationships. Friends always knew where to find Soares but couldn’t be sure she’d have time for them when they did.
“If you ever needed Steph, she was in the gym, in class, in the cafeteria or in bed,” her sister, Jessica, says. “Basically, there were only four places you needed to look.”
The work made a dominant player even more formidable. Soares scored 29 points in her fourth collegiate game. She blocked 173 shots in her first season, just 20 shy of the program’s all-time career record. And she became only the second freshman in 30 years to be named Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year in women’s basketball.
Her sophomore season was one of the best in school history. She averaged 20.7 points, a TMU single-season record, and led the country in blocks and rebounds. The Mustangs won a program-record 29 games and earned their first-ever NAIA No. 1 ranking. Soares became the first woman in TMU history to be named an NAIA Player of the Year.
Still, Soares felt hungrier than ever to improve.
That’s what brought her to the MacArthur Center on that fateful night in September 2020. The Mustangs had practiced and lifted weights early that morning. Soares had completed an individual workout in the afternoon. Even so, she insisted on returning to the gym one more time.
During a game of one-on-one, she juked her defender and tried a layup. On the way down, her left knee buckled. She tried to stand up, but her knee faltered again.
When then-head coach Dan Waldeck arrived on the scene, Soares, who rarely cries, burst into tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?” Waldeck asked. “You don’t need to apologize for working on your game.” Soares felt she’d let everyone down. “My knee’s all messed up,” she told her parents over the phone.
Doctors confirmed Soares had torn both the MCL and ACL, ligaments that stabilize the knee. Soares found the news difficult to accept. After surgery, she was looking at a nine-to-12-month recovery.
The journey wouldn’t be easy. Rehab from ACL reconstruction surgery, which Soares underwent in December 2020 (her MCL healed on its own), is broken down into phases. Patients are barred from advancing to the next stage until they’ve successfully completed goals related to range of motion, balance and strength. The finish line is reached in a halting manner – two steps forward, one step back.
At first, Soares kept to herself as she processed a new normal. She’d gone from blocking shots to spending her afternoons on a trainer’s table. Her itinerary included relearning how to walk properly. Wall slides and quarter squats replaced ball-handling drills.
At times, discouragement washed over her. She felt like her life was on hold. On picture day, Soares dressed in the team’s navy uniform and used crutches to hobble in front of a backdrop. She smiled for a headshot. Then she began to cry.
This was not how Soares envisioned her junior season. But what she saw as a holding pattern, God intended as an opportunity for growth.
![TMU WBB 1-21-04649.jpg](/uploads/TMU%20WBB%201-21-04649.jpg)
Soares spent the 2020-21 season in street clothes after suffering a knee injury.
Time. Soares had plenty of it after surgery. Outside of rehab and class, her daily schedule featured holes she could no longer fill with extra deadlifts and jump shots.
A fan of productivity, Soares refused to watch an endless string of TV shows and movies. Instead, she opened her Bible. She resolved to read it cover-to-cover over the ensuing year, sometimes in the waiting area before doctor’s appointments, mostly in her room.
Early on, she encountered the Old Testament story of Job. “He loses everything,” she says, “but he still worshipped the Lord. I only got injured.”
As Soares continued to read, she was confronted by God’s grace. He reminded her that everything she had was a gift: her relationship with Christ, her hope of eternal life, her abilities on the basketball court. In response, she was called to be thankful and to do all things for His glory.
The pages of Scripture also illustrate God’s sovereignty. Stephanie’s injury hadn’t caught Him by surprise. Her future, with or without basketball, was secure in Him, too.
Gradually, Soares saw that God was using the injury to put basketball into its proper place. She had been right to work hard and pursue excellence. But her motivation needed realignment, and she needed to find her identity in Christ. “The injury taught me about not putting so much into the things the Earth offers,” she says. “It’s about focusing on eternal things.”
One of those things? Relationships. During that year, God provided Soares with plenty of examples of what it looks like to love people well. Her parents checked in regularly over FaceTime, sympathizing with her struggles and encouraging her to keep her eyes on Christ. Jessica showed kindness but refused to let her younger sister pity herself. Coach Waldeck and TMU’s athletic trainers treated Stephanie like family. Her teammates shuttled her from class to the dorms to the cafeteria.
As time went on, Soares returned the investment. During practice, she’d ride a stationary bike in the corner of the gym and pepper her teammates with encouragement, urging them to leave nothing in the tank. On gameday, Soares, generally quiet, transformed into the team’s most energetic cheerleader.
“She was hyped,” says Jessica, a senior at the time. “She was the first one off the bench, high-fiving people and yelling. She used her voice, which was great. We got to hear more of Stephanie.”
In TMU’s athletic training room, Soares displayed consistent joy through “a painful and painstaking process,” says Dave Larsen, TMU’s head athletic trainer. Each day, Soares also brought considerable intensity.
“She’s a competitor and she saw this as a challenge, not taking ‘no’ for an answer or feeling limited,” Larsen says. “She progressed incredibly well and worked hard for three hours every day to get back to being not just the athlete she was before, but a better version of herself.”
Like with any extended trial, Stephanie had to ask the Lord daily for patience and strength. She confessed when she fell short. She started again.
By the start of the 2021-22 season, Soares was cleared to return to the court. But it was fair to ask: After the storm had passed, would her new mindset remain?
Soares returned to the court on Oct. 28, 2021, against Azusa Pacific University. She certainly appeared to be happy to be back.
As this season has progressed, Soares has looked increasingly like the generational talent fans have grown accustomed to watching.
At the beginning of February, she was averaging a career-high 21.4 points per game. The Mustangs had compiled an overall record of 23-2. They ranked No. 3 in the NAIA’s national poll.
As a team captain, Soares still demands the best effort of herself and her teammates. Now, though, she isn’t driven by a fear of not reaching her goals. She plans to play professional basketball, but she holds it with an open hand.
“My mind is calmer and more settled in the Lord now,” says Soares, who will have one year of college eligibility left after this season. “You still have to work hard and do what you need to do. But God has a plan and He’s in control. You don’t have to worry about it.”
Soares is also spending meaningful time with her teammates outside of basketball. She wakes up early to complete extra workouts so she’s free to hang out at night. She’s a magnet for the team’s freshmen, who find Soares’ self-deprecating humor disarming. They often drop by her room seeking advice. “She makes time for us no matter what,” says freshman Jayla Julmist. Soares also offers to drive younger teammates off-campus for groceries. “I like it because they don’t have any distractions and I can talk to them about life,” Soares says.
Sometimes those conversations trace their way back to a year that Soares will never forget and an injury she says she’s glad to have suffered. She says the perspective she gained was well worth it.
*To learn more about how you or someone you know can be trained to compete as an act of WORSHIP, visit [gomustangs.com/themastersway](https://gomustangs.com/sports/2022/1/18/the-masters-way.aspx).*
The Master’s University and Seminary admit students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.
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Santa Clarita, CA 91321
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