Senior midfielders Emma Wilkins and Julia Dolan have done the same four-step handshake before every soccer game for the last 11 years.
During that time, they played together on the same travel teams for Absegami High School and now Temple University women’s soccer. But after a 3-0 loss to the University of Houston on April 2, Temple’s season came to an end, along with Wilkins and Dolan’s soccer careers together.
The two first met when they were six years old in the Galloway United Community Soccer League in Galloway Township, New Jersey. Wilkins’ coach was her dad, Stephen Wilkins, who drafted Dolan onto his team.
“Both Julia and I, our whole entire lives, have been soccer,” Emma Wilkins said. “We’ve put a lot of our time and effort into not just Temple but sports in general since we’ve been really young. It was important for us to end all this together and to take a step back and realize how far we’ve come.”
There were key moments when they played together in Galloway Township that established that Dolan and Emma Wilkins would always have each other’s backs, Stephen Wilkins said.
“Emma’s always played with a little edge to her, so when I was unsatisfied with maybe some of her efforts, she and I would have words back and forth to say the least,” Stephen Wilkins, who has watched them play for 16 years, added. “So it always worked out between them and they backed each other up.”
Even though Emma Wilkins and Dolan played on the same travel teams in middle school, they never went to school together until high school.
“Once high school hit, our friendship just became a lot different and we got a lot closer,” Dolan said. “We got to do everything together. Play high school soccer together, travel soccer together. We were just pretty much always together. Ever since high school, we’ve just been pretty much inseparable.”
Elizabeth Lee, the girls’ soccer coach at Absegami, won’t forget seeing them take the field together as freshmen, she said.
“You can’t even say their names separately,” Lee added. “Every story and every statistic in high school was Emma assisted Julia and Julia assisted Emma. It was really nice to see two kids who were so close off the field get to continue playing in college. That doesn’t usually happen.”
Their bond transferred to their play styles on the soccer field. Like Stephen Wilkins noticed when they were six years old, Emma Wilkins is more aggressive and usually stands up for Dolan.
“Against Memphis this year, I got into a little fight, and when you watch it back, Emma’s the first person there and is right behind me ready to back me up for whatever,” Dolan said. “She’s always there in my corner. Even if I don’t need her, she’s there.”
After high school, the two were unsure if they could continue playing soccer together. Dolan already had a connection to Temple because her sister, former defender Kelcie Dolan, played soccer at Temple from 2015-18 and was recruited by then-head coach Seamus O’Connor.
Julia Dolan committed in Fall 2016 while Emma Wilkins was still deciding where she would play.
Emma Wilkins wasn’t interested in Temple at first because she wanted to “branch out and meet new people,” she said. She eventually committed after O’Connor recruited her more seriously and Julia Dolan helped convince her.
“After Emma got an offer, she was still a little skeptical about coming here, but I told her that it’d be the best thing ever,” Julia Dolan said. “My best friend coming to the same school as me. We could live together and just experience the best four years of our lives together.”
Having Julia and Kelcie Dolan on the team allowed Emma Wilkins to easily adjust to college, she said.
“We’ve always found our way back to each other unintentionally,” Emma Wilkins said. “Your first year of college is always intimidating initially, so it was really nice to have people I knew and could rely on to be there.”
They both played significant minutes in their four years at Temple. In the 66 total games between their freshman and senior years, Julia Dolan played in 65 games and Emma Wilkins played in 56.
“The impact Emma and Julia have had both individually and collectively on the Temple women’s soccer program will be felt for years and generations to come,” said head coach Nick Bochette.
Bochette hopes other players on the team will use their friendships to push each other to improve their game like Julia Dolan and Emma Wilkins did, he added.
Halfway through their junior year, Emma Wilkins tore the ACL and meniscus in her left knee, causing her to miss the final 10 games of the season.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I would ever come back,” Emma Wilkins said. “I’d always think of if that was the last game I ever played and if it was our last game together. But I definitely didn’t want to end on that note and wanted to make sure it wasn’t our last game together.”
Julia Dolan felt “weird” being on the field without Emma Wilkins while she was hurt, she said.
Emma Wilkins progressed to the “full-on running stage” of her rehab, consisting of field work like cutting and agility exercises, but when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she had to move back home.
Because the two lived so close to each other, Julia Dolan helped Emma Wilkins with her rehab. Emma Wilkins received a packet of drills and exercises to aid her recovery, and Julia Dolan helped her with all of them.
“During COVID, we’d work out together at our local field,” Julia Dolan said. “She was working back from her ACL and I wanted to help her, and she helped me too. We wanted to make each other better for this season because we knew that it was our last together.”
With their collegiate careers at an end, the two plan to stay in Philadelphia next year, Julia Dolan said.
After graduation, Julia Dolan has a job lined up in West Philadelphia with the facilities services company Cintas. Emma Wilkins was accepted into Temple’s pre-physician assistant post-baccalaureate program for 2022 and will apply to graduate school.
The end of Julia Dolan and Emma Wilkins’ time together on the soccer field is difficult for Stephen Wilkins, he said.
“There’s a lot of miles on their legs and bodies,” Stephen Wilkins added. “It’s bittersweet to have something that they’ve been doing for 16 years come to an end. It’s just all been a real joy to watch.”
Looking back at their college careers, they both wish they won more games and had a few deep playoff runs. The two are sad their soccer careers are over, but being next to each other through it all makes it hurt less, Emma Wilkins said.
“We’re very different people, but at the same time, we’re the same and we truly get each other,” Emma Wilkins added. “She’s kind of the yin to my yang really. She balances me out and I help to balance her out. She’s a part of my family and she will be for the rest of my life.”