Tiger girls defy boundaries

Published 7:42 pm Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It is always funny to watch a team or even individual player face Demopolis for the first time. It is Class 5A boys soccer. So, naturally, the two girls who always take the field for the Tigers have no chance of holding their own. At least, that seems to be the prevailing thought process for the ill-informed.

Sure. New players or teams have probably heard about the goalkeeping prowess of senior Rachel Walker or the toughness of Maria Brooker. But it is kind of like Bruce Lee’s legendary one-inch punch. You can’t really appreciate it until you’ve experienced it yourself.

So they step onto the field and they challenge Brooker early. And, more times than she’d probably admit, the sophomore midfielder unceremoniously introduces them to the turf.

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“The one thing about Maria is she does not back down, regardless of the size of the player,” Demopolis head coach Peter Keen says of Brooker, a sophomore who has competed on the boys team since her eighth grade year. “She’s been playing with the boys for more than two years.”

Or maybe they test Walker, the vast majority of the time failing epically in the process.

“She’s not afraid of anything,” Keen says of Rachel. “She’s fearless. She reads the field really well. She knows what her job is. She knows when to attack and when she needs to stay back.”

“She’s great. She’s very aggressive,” Brooker says of her Walker, the senior who signed a soccer scholarship with Judson College just a few weeks ago. “And she always gives it her best. I’ve been able to see everything she’s done that she has improved on.”

The tandem began their high school soccer careers on the girls varsity team. After making a playoff appearance in 2007, the program graduated nine girls and was left without enough to field a team. But Walker and Brooker decided to stick with the game. So they followed Keen, then the girls head coach, to the boys team.

“Rachel has been with me for five years. After we graduated nine seniors, we didn’t have enough to fill out a girls team, so she came on over to the boys,” Keen recalls.

Walker was only a sophomore at the time and was not long removed from having been relegated to a wheelchair after a bout with the West Nile virus left her with nerve damage in her legs.

“I was really scared at first,” Walker says. “I wasn’t sure I could play with them. The guys are a whole lot faster than the girls and kick a whole lot harder. But I guess the one thing that wasn’t so bad about it is the girls play a whole lot dirtier than the guys do.”

Even the head coach, who may be her biggest fan outside of her family, admitted he experienced some trepidation about putting her in goal early.

“I did at first because the boys game is so much faster and the shots are so much stronger,” Keen says of his initial uncertainty. “Once she got a little bit of experience and we worked her at that pace, she adapted very well.”

Then there was Brooker. She was only in middle school at the time. And her role on the team, which initially saw her playing back on defense, called for a lot more contact and physical play. But Brooker got her chance to earn her spot. Once she did, she never let it go.

“I’ve played since kindergarten,” Brooker says. “I’ve grown up with my older brother and cousin who are just rough all the time. So I had to be that way playing with them.”

“Going to the boys, she never missed a beat,” Keen says. “She just jumped right in.”

Over the last three seasons, Brooker has continued to develop as a player, moving from defense up to midfield, where she faces even more contact and physical play.

“The only only thing she will get beat in is speed. Her shots are hard. Her aggressiveness is there. Her foot skills are good,” Keen says of the sophomore midfielder. “If I play her up at outside wing, she’s got a strong enough leg to cross the ball to the midfielders. If I play her back on defense, she can clear the ball. She doesn’t back down from a one-on-one tackle and she usually comes out on top with the tackles.”

“She’s really good,” Walker says of Brooker. “She’s grown tremendously and she still has two more years to go. So I knew she could go play college if she wanted to. She’s really tough. She can take a lick and definitely dish one out.”

Brooker recognizes where her weaknesses are and accounts for them in other areas of her game. And as tough as she is on the field, her greatest value may come in her versatility.

“I like defense better,” she concedes. “I’ve always played defense. When Coach Keen told me I was playing midfield, it kind of scared me because I know I’m not fast like a lot of the guys. But it really doesn’t matter to me. I’ll play where ever I’m needed.”

The tandem’s play on the pitch is in stark contrast to their manner off it. They are both perfectly normal teenage girls, with all the cares and concerns that accompany that lot in life. Brooker comes off a little more meekly away from the field, but still can be found verbally holding her own with her male teammates and classmates. Walker is more reserved. In goal, she chatters well, barking out commands and instructions to the white jerseys in front of her. But that is probably the most audible she ever gets.

As interesting as it is to watch the girls compete in a physically demanding sport against teenage guys, it is even more fascinating to see them interact with their own teammates.

“We’re just like one of the guys to them,” Walker says of the relationship she and Brooker have with their teammates.

“We get a long well with all the guys,” Brooker explains. “They are all like brothers to us.”

And then there is the relationship Brooker and Walker share with one another. While they’ve been friends for quite some time, their bond has been forged even more by the shared challenge of playing the game they love in a male-dominated arena.

“We’re closer,” Walker says. “I always can talk to her about, just, problems.”

“We do have a special relationship,” Brooker says. “We’re really good friends.”

That relationship has helped them adjust to the obstacles they’ve encountered along the way. Their play has has helped their team earn its first playoff berth in program history. And their attitude, toughness and resiliency has earned them the respect of their opponents, teammates and coaches.

“I respect both of them,” Keen says. “They play very hard and strong.”