It’s not a stretch to say that Marissa Popoola was born to play soccer. Her mother, Christine, is an accomplished soccer player. Her father, Ben, played for the Nigeria national team and the Kansas City Comets, and coached a combined 28 years at Park University and Appalachian State University.
So it was no surprise Popoola’s first soccer ball coincided with her first steps.
“My dad was my coach and trained me, and I never connected with any other sport. I tried swimming and basketball, but nothing connected with me like soccer did,” Popoola said.
The connection is strong, and growing. Popoola has scored more than 70 goals in her career at Blue Valley West. The Jaguars are the Kansas Class 6A two-time defending state champions, and in 2016, BV West was state runner-up.
Popoola’s next stop is the University of Nebraska this fall, and she traces her success to the lifelong coaching sessions with her father.
“I was never really intimidated. It was more that he showed me the best parts of playing soccer, and I learned a lot about perseverance and motivation to work outside of practice,” Popoola said. “It’s something that you have to do on your own. That’s a big part as to why I am where I am as a soccer player today.”
The game and training schedule at Blue Valley West is only part of Popoola’s weekly regimen. She works on soccer-specific drills with Ben four times a week, and does strength-and-conditioning work twice a week.
The work has turned Popoola into the most dangerous of weapons on the soccer field — a supremely talented player who isn’t afraid to test the limits of her ability.
“I felt small on the field then, and now there’s a way to play with confidence instead of cockiness, and that shows on the field a lot,” Popoola said. “I try to show my teammates that it’s OK to make mistakes and still feel confident.”
Alex Aiman as a kid played on all-star soccer teams that were coached by Ben Popoola. As the girls soccer coach at Blue Valley West, Aiman was counting the days until Marissa’s freshman year.
Aiman knew what to expect, and Popoola has delivered.
“She’s strong, and super hard-nosed. It takes a lot to get the ball from her,” Aiman said. “She’s not slow, and not crazy fast. She’s a good post-up-with-her-back-to-the-goal type of forward.”
The goals came in bunches, and Aiman has seen other aspects of her play grow as well.
“I think she’s grown more as a person and in her leadership. She’s our captain, and the heart and soul of our team. I run everything through her,” Aiman said. “Other kids look up to her, and she’s leading by example. She’s out there sweating like everybody else. She’s accepted what everyone has kind of projected on her. If we get to the finals, she will have played in four state finals. That’s pretty amazing.”
Popoola had her choice of six college offers. She chose the Cornhuskers because that’s where she said she could best see her future.
The present goal is a third straight state title.
“All of our season we’re preparing ourselves for state. Right now we’re pushing each other and making sure we’re motivated and dedicated and pushing ourselves even more,” Popoola said. “It’s something we all want and try our best to accomplish.”
There’s no doubt that Blue Valley West’s rivals in the Eastern Kansas League with breathe a collective sigh of relief when Popoola’s high school career ends.
But her career isn’t over yet.