Yale's success attracts stellar recruiting class
Leslie Perez and Sophia Merrifield are just two of eight freshmen who represent the future of Yale soccer, writes Graham Hays.
Leslie Perez and Sophia Merrifield are two of eight freshmen who represent the future of Yale soccer. But from the sound of it, the soccer field might be only the first step on a journey that could include medicine, invention, public policy and conceivably even world domination.
Anyone else remember a freshman experience that generally limited physics and philosophy to the philosophy of whether it was wise to experiment repeatedly with the physics of fluids moving through a funnel the night before a midterm?
"I'm a biology major, so I'm doing the whole pre-med track," chimed in Perez.
Precocious does not even begin to do these two justice.
But if early returns on the field are any indication, Merrifield and Perez won't have much trouble diving in the deep end of the academic pool. Lured to Yale in part by the program's recent success in earning national rankings and NCAA Tournament berths, both freshmen already have emerged as starters counted on to immediately help maintain, and even exceed, that previous level of excellence.
It just goes to show there's more than one blueprint for a successful freshman.
Other than warm-climate roots that could make January in New England an interesting experience -- and a shared ability to make someone a decade their elder feel guilty all over again for the missteps and wasted opportunities of youth -- Perez and Merrifield come across as almost polar opposites.
A downright peppy soul who seems to feed off positive reinforcement from her coaches and teammates, Weston, Fla. native Perez is a walking, talking, and almost permanently smiling college brochure. She's the kind of person who probably even enjoyed orientation lectures because they were simply another part of the adventure.
"I love it, I love being in the dorms," Perez said of college life, her southern drawl straining to keep up with her rapid-fire thought process. "You have your own space, and your friends are all around you. You don't even have a curfew or anything. It's just something you have to adjust to, coming right from home. But it's awesome. Everyone around you is in the same position, everyone is eager to meet people, introduce themselves; it's really fun."
A tall, confidently easy-going defender from Hawaii, Merrifield exudes a sense of calm more befitting a graduate assistant than a freshman. Where Perez smiles with her whole face, Merrifield grins with the corners of her mouth before quickly regaining a placid countenance. Though no less happy to be in New Haven than Perez, her assessment of college life is more measured and seems to take in the big picture.
"I think college in general is a transition, especially being freshmen," Merrifield said. "Like, we've never lived away from our parents -- I mean, I'm like a million miles away from my home. But I think that the atmosphere here, they really want you to be here. It's competitive and we get better, but no one is mean, everyone is very willing to step in and help another person."
It might not be the most important tool for settling in at college, but a good deli sandwich never hurt.
"We hit up Gourmet Heaven maybe once or twice a day," Perez said in rapturous tones of a grocery/deli near campus.
Added Merrifield in agreement, "We found a little spot that we really like to eat at, we made friends with the workers. We're transitioning well."
Even with a head start on most freshmen thanks to preseason practices, getting comfortable with a new city is a gradual process. But it pays to have strength in numbers, and both Perez and Merrifield stress the bond between all of this year's newcomers, a list which also includes Hannah Smith, Caitlin Collins, Eliza Walper, Jacqueline Gantes, Ali Giusto and Andrea Bouchard.
Together they're starting to get a feel for one of New England's more eclectic towns.
"New Haven is a cool city," Perez said. "When I first came here, everyone was like, 'Oh, it's a bad city.' But I like it, there are so many different people around you all the time, there is always something going on. I like New Haven."
But thanks to practice schedules, class schedules and lack of transportation, they haven't had a chance to fully cement their New Haven status by taking sides in the great pizza debate. The self-styled birthplace of American pizza, New Haven is home to numerous famous pizzerias, including the legendary Pepe's.
"We haven't been to Pepe's, but I've heard about it," Perez said. "I even heard about it from someone back home."
Merrifield went one better, "I heard about it from someone on the plane."
Thankfully, when they do get around to making the pilgrimage, Pepe's has booths capable of seating eight.
Blessed with tremendous speed -- she earned the nickname "White Chocolate" in high school -- Perez is making the transition from outside midfield in high school and club soccer to forward at Yale. In coach Rudy Meredith, a gifted goal-scorer during a two-year career at Southern Connecticut that produced a Division II national championship, she has a terrific mentor. Frequently the coach will pull her off to the side during practice to offer one-on-one tutelage in some technique or trick of the trade.
"She's learning how to play forward," Meredith said. "It's going to be, obviously, a learning process. She wants to learn, she wants to get better, so I've got to work with her and teach her how to play forward. It's a little bit different than it was at outside midfield. Different runs, she's got to receive the ball with her back to the goal - when she played outside midfield, she never received the ball with her back to the goal."
But it's the speed that always will form the backbone of her game.
"When I was little, I just ran around," Perez recalled. "But then I realized as I got older and it got more and more competitive, that my speed was my biggest asset. That's what I needed to use to have an upper hand on my defender, so I would just try and utilize it as much as possible."
Surprisingly strong for her wiry frame, Perez already has proven adept at chasing down passes on the flank without getting pushed off the ball once she gathers it in. If she polishes her finishing skills in her new position, she'll have an elite mix of speed and skills, something still somewhat rare in the Ivy League.
For Merrifield, calmness and grace under pressure are almost required attributes at a position that often draws attention only as a result of failure.
"Especially when you have new players, you need composure back there," Meredith said. "Because you want everybody to feel comfortable with you back there. She is calm and cool and collected back there. And she has stepped up into a serious role - that void, we had a void there from last year with Eleni Benson graduating.
"She's done a great job, she's done a really great job."
Hayley Zevenbergen and Mary Kuder, Yale's other two starters on the back line, are converted midfielders, but Merrifield, other than a few brief forays into the midfield, is a born and bred defender. Watching her play out on an island against oncoming attacks, she looks entirely comfortable with her surroundings.
"It's challenging, I mean defense is always challenging, there's no glory in it," Merrifield said with the sigh of someone used to seeing other players get the headlines. "But it's fun, I enjoy it. I mean, playing against this caliber of girls is something different for me."
The fact that Merrifield, Perez and the rest of this year's talented class has taken up residence in the dorms in New Haven -- following on the heels of a wildly successful freshman class last year --- speaks to the growth of Meredith's program. The influx of young talent shows Yale is now an Ivy League soccer destination, crucial in a recruiting pool limited by academic and financial considerations.
For Merrifield, it came down to Yale or Dartmouth. Which is to say, it came down a battle of 24-hour travel itineraries ("If it's a straight shot -- if it's California and then here, it's 10 -- but typically it takes like 24 because there are a bunch of connections and layovers," she said).
"Three or four years ago, she would have maybe gone to Dartmouth because the soccer program back then at Dartmouth was probably better," Meredith said.
Playing with current captain Christina Huang on a club team in Hawaii two summers ago also helped lure Merrifield to Connecticut. Merrifield credited Huang for being honest about the ups and downs of Yale, while all the while encouraging her to sign on. After a recent game in Delaware, near Huang's home in Maryland, Merrifield stood with Huang's family, interacting like a second daughter. For someone so far from home, it was likely no small comfort.
And for Perez, as had been the case for Huang four years before, the choice came down to Yale or traditional Ivy power Princeton.
"When she came on her visit, we had actually just beaten Princeton and we were ranked," Meredith said of Perez, who echoed the importance of seeing Yale ranked and on top of the league.
Of course, now that classes have started, each day brings reminders that choosing Yale was about more than getting a shot at an Ivy League title. And while Perez's speed might help her get to class a little quicker and Merrifield's composure could help when that blue book settles in front of her, they're in the same boat as the rest of the class of 2010 once they take off their cleats.
While admitting that her strenuous academic schedule might tax her just as much as Heather O'Reilly or Yael Averbuch did on the field, Merrifield added, "But the professors here are amazing and the facilities are amazing. I'm excited. Hopefully I won't be too overwhelmed by what I chose to take."
Perez added, "You know the schedule is going to be challenging, you're going to have nights where you're just doing homework, but that's what you're here for. I guess it all pays off in the end eventually? Hopefully?"
Just don't count on either of these two to sit idly by while waiting to find out.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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