Brynn Zorilla Has Become A Leader On The Cal Campus
This feature originally appeared in the 2021 Fall edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.Through a tumultuous last year, Brynn Zorilla’s leadership proved to be vital in keeping the Cal field hockey team together.
Zorilla, in her role as a team captain, initially encountered adversity in sustaining the focus of team goals when the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the 2020 fall season and uncertainty about a spring season loomed.
But that paled in comparison to the task of helping her teammates mourn the tragic passing of teammate Zoë Rogers in October. Zorilla took it upon herself to continue Rogers’ hard work around the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I have always been an independent person, but being at Cal has taught me so much more about myself,” Zorilla said. “I have found my voice and gained the confidence I needed to use it and stand up for the things I believe in.”
In addition to fighting for social justice, Zorilla and fellow team captain Maddie Cleat helped their teammates brainstorm ways to honor Rogers’ legacy. They wanted Rogers to be with them in every way possible when the Bears returned to competition in the spring.
Cleat said Zorilla’s positive attitude and willingness to grow strengthened the program, especially so during that difficult time.
“Brynn has found her role in leading the team for our social justice commitment,” Cleat said. “She reminds every one of the role they can play in making a change in the world we live in by giving us tasks and always pushing us to be our best selves. There are lots of things Brynn constantly works on and reminds our team to stay on top of.”
After first becoming inspired by assisting Rogers with her outreach endeavors, Zorilla wanted to take the baton and continue her fight for social and racial justice.
“Zoë was always striving to be better,” Zorilla said. “Whether that was on the field, in the classroom or just day-to-day life, she was never satisfied with complacency. Trying to honor Zoë made me realize that the work is never done. Our team became more open with each other to have difficult conversations and learn how to be better. We challenged each other to find social or racial justice topics we felt were important and gave presentations during team meetings.”
In remembrance of Rogers, Zorilla led the charge of such efforts as producing a virtual Celebration of Life memorial for Rogers with her family and the Cal Athletics family. To honor Rogers’ No. 91 jersey, the Bears held a 30-day challenge featuring a daily 91-second wall-sit wherever the student-athletes were at the time, inspiring numerous other teams to follow. The Bears participated in Black History Month celebration efforts, creating social media tributes that honored historical, modern-day and future Black leaders throughout society.
During the spring season, team huddles ended with the shout of “Ninety-one!” The Bears featured a tribute patch on all jerseys, and Cal wore a warm-up shirt featuring Rogers’ favorite aviator glasses. Rogers’ jersey also hung at all team events throughout the season. In addition, a memorial poster for Rogers is displayed at every game at Underhill Field. Zorilla encouraged teammates to answer the question “Why do you play for Zoë?” on an index card. The cards were taped around the poster to symbolize each student-athlete’s drive to play for Rogers.
Dr. Ty-Ron Douglas, Cal’s Associate Athletics Director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, worked with Zorilla to educate the program on ways to fight for social justice.
“Brynn is a thermostat for her team,” Douglas said. “Thermometers tell you what the temperature is, but thermostats help to set it. Continuing the work for Zoë, not only for her team but advancing inclusion, she is creating a better space for all of us. Brynn doesn’t identify as Black, but she’s an advocate for all people, and that’s what we need. She tries to pull us all in the same direction.”
The team’s efforts with social justice were recognized as the program was awarded the 2020-21 Pac-12 Sportsmanship Award. As much as Zorilla appreciated the honor, she admitted it felt bittersweet given the circumstances.
“My favorite part about winning this award is that it allowed our story to reach even more people,” she said. “It is incredible to know that Zoë’s legacy will continue to be an inspiration to those beyond our team. The award also challenged us to make honoring Zoë a continuous effort. We have been acknowledged for our hard work so far, but Zoë was not one to stop at the first sign of success, so neither will we.”
Similar to Douglas’ thoughts, Dr. Graig Chow, the Director of High Performance & Well-Being with the Cameron Institute, has been impressed working with Zorilla. Chow aided the team in creating team values that have served as a foundation for the program’s growth this past year. He helped the Bears manage the challenges faced on and off the field.
“Brynn is a rockstar in field hockey, school and life,” Chow said. “She is a multidimensional leader who is purpose-driven, intelligent and inspirational. Despite her accomplishments, she is humble, caring and has a team-first mentality. She is well-respected by teammates, coaches and staff alike. Brynn took a proactive role in ensuring that Zoë – and the cause she was most passionate about – would remain a top priority throughout the season. Brynn and her teammates and coaches are committed to continuing the fight for social justice throughout this season. When I think about what we hope the ‘Cal student-athlete’ will become, Brynn is among the top student-athletes that come to mind.”
Since the first day Zorilla stepped on campus, Donna Fong Director of Field Hockey Shellie Onstead perceived traits in Zorilla that made her optimistic that she’d be a captain one day.
Onstead noted that one of Zorilla’s leadership qualities that stands out is her ability to turn adversity into a learning experience. That positive mentality has rubbed off on her teammates and given them confidence for the 2021 fall season.
“There was a purpose for our [spring] season,” Onstead said. “We had such single-mindedness that it was one of the best environments we’ve had in years. So much love and fun, no drama. Everybody was on the same page for the right reasons, and I give Brynn a ton of credit for that.”
Following graduation from Cal, Zorilla, a native of Vista in Southern California who is majoring in psychology, hopes to work in the field of mental health as she continues to seek ways to help those in her community. She believes that mental health needs to be reimagined to support those who are suffering.
Zorilla’s growth experiences at Cal have also given her the confidence to keep Rogers’ legacy alive by staying involved with advocacy for social and racial justice