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Baker gets back to being fearless on the soccer field

Oct. 17, 2008

By Billy Hull
Honolulu Star Bulletin

Kelsey Baker thought she had it figured out in high school.

When you're a two-time Star-Bulletin state player of the year, the Gatorade Hawaii soccer player of the year and a three-time state champion, it's hard to argue against that.

But Baker, a 2005 Punahou graduate, realized there was a completely different aspect to soccer when she first stepped on the practice field for her freshman season at Pepperdine.

"I felt probably the most out of place that I have felt in my entire life," Baker said. "Not even so much being away from home, but soccer-wise, the girls were so good and I just felt like I couldn't play with them.

I went through some self-confidence issues in the beginning."

For someone who dominated the high school scene during her four years on the Punahou varsity team, not being able to continue that success wasn't easy.

For the first time in her life, she sat on the bench as her teammates took the field.

"We knew that ultimately she was going to be a great asset to our team, but that it would take a little time for her to adjust to the speed of play and perhaps a little different philosophy about the game," Pepperdine coach Tim Ward said.

What separated Baker from other players in high school was her physical style of play.

She started playing soccer when she as 8 and was coached by her mom. That first season, she had played on an under-10 club team against all boys.

"We got smashed every game, but I don't remember being really sad about it," Baker said. "I might have been the only person to stay on that team the whole year."

Instead of quitting, she stayed with it, taking her lumps every game. Eventually, it molded her into the player she was. By high school, she was one of the most physically imposing players on the field.

"Fearless," was how Punahou coach Jorge Barbosa described Baker in a Star-Bulletin article in 2004. "Some kids you have to teach to be aggressive, but she already had that."

She brought that trait to Pepperdine, but what she found was a totally different style of play that would eventually turn her into the all-around player she is today.

"Pepperdine soccer is very skill oriented, or 'pretty soccer,' as I call it," Baker said. "That's not how I play soccer. I like to hit people and be very physical. We kind of have a rep here of being the exact opposite of that."

She still has the same fearless, aggressive style that earned her second-team All-West Coast Conference honors as a sophomore.

In a game against Ohio State that season, she went up for a header and whiffed on the ball, instead smashing into her opponent. Both players dropped to the ground, but Baker didn't realize how bad it was until "blood started spewing out of my head."

"I guess you could see my skull," Baker said. "I had 25 stitches, but the other girl had to get 50 across her face.

"I guess, ultimately, I won."

But now, she's blended that aggression with the ball-control style her coach wants, and the end result has been a superb collegiate career that is slowly coming to an end.

Tonight will be her 50th consecutive start, and with only a handful of games remaining, her focus is on getting the Waves back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since her freshman season.

It won't be easy, as the Waves are 5-7-2, but six of those loses have been by a goal.

"It seems we make mistakes other teams make, but we end up paying for them," Baker said. "Sometimes you can get away with it, but we're not getting away with it."

Whatever happens on the field, Baker's experience at Pepperdine has prepared her for the rest of her life in a way she didn't think possible.

At times, she thought about quitting. There were moments she felt like she didn't fit in.

But when hosting a recruit last week, Baker saw her collegiate career come full circle.

She thought back to when she was the one visiting schools and getting to know the girls on the team.

"I chose (Pepperdine) based on the girls on the team that I met," she said.

Suddenly, there Baker was, showing a high school senior around the campus that had been home for four years. It took her back to her early days of uncertainty and mystery.

Then it all hit her.

"I stopped and said, 'Wow, I've made it.' I realize now more than ever before that I can do it on my own," Baker said. "Sports builds character. Going through failures and successes are going to be the things that help me later on in life."

Four years from now, she hopes that recruit is saying the same thing.