By Sean Cartell, SEC
ATHENS, Ga. --- Marion Crowder may be making a homecoming on Friday, but she certainly felt right at home in Athens during her freshman season at the University of Georgia.
The Madison, Miss., native, who along with her Georgia teammates will open their 2014 season at 7 p.m. ET Friday at Ole Miss in the first live regular-season event to be televised on the SEC Network, is coming off perhaps the finest rookie campaign in her school’s history.
In her first season in the Classic City, Crowder led her team in both goals (11) and points (23) and finished just one goal off the Georgia rookie record of 12 goals set by Carrie Patterson in 2006. A freshman All-SEC selection last year, Crowder turned in a squad-best seven game-winning goals, second-best in the conference.
“I did not expect to have that kind of impact so quickly,” Crowder said. “My team helped me with the transition so much. I came into Georgia my first preseason with the expectation that I was going to be on the field. I wanted to be the best and I’m still working towards that. If it weren’t for my teammates, I’d never get passes for goals. It was really their willingness to help my freshman transition and my will and desire to want to be good for this program.”
Crowder’s performances didn’t surprise Steve Holeman, her head coach. She arrived in Athens as the 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Mississippi and was her home state’s Miss Soccer in 2013. She led her Madison Central High School team in goals each of her four years, and that squad won a pair of state championships.
“Expectations were high for Marion Crowder,” Holeman said. “You never know how quickly a player is going to adjust, but we knew she was fast, dangerous and could score goals. I was not 100 percent certain she could do it her first year in the conference, but I don’t know that we were surprised. We were certainly pleased with her performance and she was a big part of our success.”
Crowder ranked ninth in the SEC in both goals (11) and goals per game (0.55) last season, including the conference’s only four-goal game of the year. Her difference-making speed, along with a number of intangible qualities allowed her to quickly make an impact against some of the nation’s stiffest competition.
“From what the casual fan sees, she’s one of the fastest players in the conference, she’s extremely explosive, stretches defenses, has the ability to get in behind and the ability to finish,” Holeman said. “Behind the scenes, she is highly motivated, is a natural leader and is extremely coachable. She continues to take her game to the next level and is never satisfied. She has all the intangibles that any coach could want.”
That the Bulldogs will face the Rebels on Friday in their season-opener makes it a special match-up for Crowder, who could just have easily ended up on the opposing bench.
Growing up in the Magnolia State, Crowder had considered attending Ole Miss, where Holeman served as head coach from 1995-2009. His move to Georgia in advance of the 2010 campaign piqued Crowder’s interest in the Bulldogs.
“I don’t want to say that I followed [Holeman] here, but he was a big link,” Crowder said. “Once I visited Georgia, I just completely fell in love. My family felt comfortable with me here and with Coach Holeman. I could see so much potential in this program. It was a team I felt like I wanted to be a part of and make a huge impact on. I knew the girls that Coach Holeman recruited and they were all girls with great reputations and a high level of soccer savvy.”
As positive as Crowder’s rookie campaign at Georgia was, her offseason was filled with its share of frustrations. She tore her ACL on February 17 and underwent surgery 10 days later. As disappointing as the injury may have been, Crowder directed her focus to her rehab.
“I think she probably went through the normal phases of post-injury,” Holeman said. “She was disappointed and upset and went through the phases of being mad. But when she got to the point of being motivated and energized, there was no stopping her. It’s no surprise that she has been working her tail off and is ready to get back.”
Crowder has spent her summer in Athens preparing to get back on the field for her sophomore season. It has been a journey that she believes will be beneficial as she continues her collegiate career.
“It has been a hard mental battle, but it has taught me a whole lot about the game of soccer; mentally, I’m going to be better than I’ve ever been,” Crowder said. “I think having an injury renews your love of what you do. I have no doubt in my mind that this has been for my benefit. I’m hoping this will give me that edge that other players don’t have because I know what it feels like to have it taken away.”
The potential appears to be limitless for Crowder, the 5-foot-4 forward, who already ranks seventh on Georgia’s all-time list for game-winning goals.
“I think she’ll go down as one of the top players to ever represent Georgia women’s soccer,” Holeman said. “She has proven herself as one of the top leaders on our team and it’s only a matter of time before she’s a captain. She will lead this program to new heights.”