The story of a perfect season can be condensed into the story of two players. They are from different cultures — and followed different paths — but both are now at Kansas, helping the women’s soccer team to the best start in school history.
“We have it in our mind to win,” says Liana Salazar, a junior midfielder.
“Something is different,” says Ali Kimura, a senior forward.
But first, the stories.
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In the summer of 2011, Salazar was a teenager playing in the Women’s World Cup for her native Colombia. She had grown up in Bogota, playing against the boys in her neighborhood. A blend of skill and creativity, Salazar was just the kind of player who could bolster a college soccer program.
In the summer of 2011, Kimura was done with competitive soccer. She had grown up in Overland Park, scoring goals and starring for Shawnee Mission South. Standing 5 feet 5 and blessed with speed, Kimura was just the kind of player who might dominate intramural soccer.
Three years later, Salazar and Kimura sit on the grass at the Jayhawk Soccer Complex, stretching after a recent KU soccer practice. Kansas coach Mark Francis stands in the middle of the group, talking about staying fresh and maintaining fitness. The Jayhawks, 8-0, are ranked 16th in the latest soccer coaches’ poll, and will attempt to stay perfect at Marquette, 2-5-1, on Friday.
Kansas is also doing it all while it waits to move into a new home venue at Rock Chalk Park in October.
It would be wrong to suggest that KU’s 8-0 start is some sort of underdog story — that nobody expected this. In 15 seasons at Kansas, Francis had built a consistently competitive program. There was a Big 12 title in 2004. A Sweet 16 appearance. Five total trips to the NCAA postseason. But after a disappointing 7-11-2 record last season, it’s fair to say that Francis has never experienced a start like this.
“We knew we had some talent,” Francis says. “We had some talent last year, but we struggled to score goals.”
Through eight games this season, the offense hasn’t been a problem. Salazar, a 5-foot-3 midfielder, leads Kansas with six goals, the second-most in the Big 12. Kimura has added three goals and four assists, and the Jayhawks have outscored opponents by 15 goals, notching victories over Wake Forest, Colorado and SMU.
“We had a goal to win the Big 12, but I didn’t expect it to be 8-0,” Salazar says. “You kind of know you’re going to be good, but you’re not sure.”
Perhaps that can describe Salazar’s career as well. After arriving in 2011, Salazar took a redshirt year in 2012 to focus on school. She returned last year, scoring three goals, but she’s turned into an offensive catalyst as a junior. While Kansas prepares to enter Big 12 Conference play next week, Salazar will also keep one eye on Colombia. Her home country is currently in qualifying for next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. And it could lead to another opportunity for international experience.
“Of course, I want to go if I can,” Salazar says. “I want to be there.”
Led by Salazar, the Jayhawks’ feature a hefty dose of international flavor, including players from Scotland, France and Germany. But the most pleasant contribution may have come from Overland Park.
Two years ago, Kimura was playing for the KU women’s club team when a rash of injuries hit the varsity program. A mutual acquaintance sent Kimura’s name to Francis, and by the end of the 2012 season, she was on the team and seeing action in games.
“I was originally going to go to Tulsa to play there, and then I just chickened out,” Kimura says. “But I got a second go-round my sophomore year.”
The path worked for Kimura. A different path worked for Salazar. And it worked out for Kansas, too.
“Now here we are,” Kimura said, “playing together.”