By Noah Allison–
Men’s soccer head coach Ken Lolla got to watch his team capture a Big East regular season title and battle deep into the national tournament during this past fall. Over the last few weeks he has been able to see his star defender Andrew Farrell go No. 1 overall in the MLS draft. Furthermore, three pivotal seniors, Paolo DelPiccolo, Brock Granger and Greg Cochrane get to pursue their professional careers in the MLS and overseas. Now Lolla gets to see how his young team can adapt to the changes that will come with next years team and who will step up to fill the shoes of Cardinal greats.
Freshman Marlon Hairston found himself thrust into the thick of the action early into his career here at U of L, starting 18 games. With experience comes responsibility, and he hopes to live up to the responsibilities that he has earned from his play this past fall at the midfield position. Relying on natural talent and growing throughout the season, Hairston was able to dish out three assists as well as score three goals of his own.
“I started playing at the age of three, I guess I started when I first got a little soccer ball as a present. And I’ve just been kicking the ball since then,” Hairston said. “My pops use to coach a little league team that my brother and I played on, so I learned a lot from my older brother playing together. He was five years older than me; we had a local soccer field by our house, so just playing with him I got a lot better.”
Hairston is not a Louisville native; in fact, he came to Kentucky from the Deep South.
“I’m from Jackson, Mississippi,” Hairston continued, “and I stayed there mostly all my life until I moved to Florida to play at IMG. Jackson was tough, but that’s why I’m here now, trying to create a way out for myself and trying to make the most of it.”
Hairston recalls getting the offer to play for IMG Pendleton School in Florida.
“I was with my family going out to eat for a birthday when I received a random phone call from a number I had never seen before. Luckily, the call came in and it was IMG; they invited me to come tour the place. It was expensive, almost 70,000 dollars for one year to go play, but they were willing to pay it all and give me a scholarship and a place to stay.”
Hairston had played on many travel teams, regional teams and even on the national team. But moving away from his family for his high school education and the honing of his soccer skills was a major switch of lifestyle. One of just a few Americans on his team, Hairston learned the game of international soccer by playing with some of the best young talent from Africa, Europe and South America.
“IMG was a lot different. Mississippi had a lot of distractions, I mean there are always going to be distractions no matter where you go, but still, there was probably a lot more when I was there and I always wanted to be able to play soccer when I got older so I tried to use that as a motivation to get better than I was before. Being on my own was a big factor that played into it too,” Hairston said. “I met new friends and had teammates from all around the world. It was a pretty diverse place, I learned new languages and it was nice being able to communicate with different people from different cultures.”
In addition to the culture, Hairston notes that the soccer was different too.
“It was a lot different being able to play with them, obviously it was better competition. In their countries, soccer is the number one sport, where as here it’s just a runner-up. The game was faster;I had to get use to communication on the field. When I got to IMG, I really had to learn the team aspect of soccer,” Hairston said.
Hairston brings more to the team than his quickness, fast thinking and great hair. He also brings a work ethic that is necessary for anybody to improve at his or her craft. At just 157 pounds entering his freshman year, Hairston now knows just how physical Division One soccer is; thus, he is using this time over the off season to compensate for it.
“What I’m really focusing on now is my strength, so I’m putting in extra work in the weight room just trying to get bigger and catch up to some of the guys that have already reached their full strength. Because that’s a major part of college soccer, but I’m quick enough to compete with these guys so it’s really just my physical aspect now.”
Hairston will head into his sophomore season with hopes of matching this past season’s success and surpassing postseason success. The men’s soccer team is just one of many teams here at U of L that has a National Championship in its sights and hopefully not too far in its future. With young talent like Hairston, perhaps there will not be too much longer to wait.
“You can only get better playing under the likes of Mario Sanchez, our assistant coach, and our head coach Ken Lolla. They are a great coaching staff, the team is a great group of guys, and they are all good people to play with. I felt like I was a good player before I came here but you can only grow and get better and now I realize that there are a lot of aspects of my game that I can improve on,” Hairston said.
As he reflects on the Cardinals that have recently moved on to the MLS and international play, he recognizes that he and the rest of the men’s soccer team will have to step up to counteract the loss of those players.
“I feel like I have pretty big shoes to fill with losing the players we did, but being with them one season really helped me a lot. I can only grow from here, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring more leadership to the team next year. So hopefully I’ll be able to help lead our team deeper into the tournament and win the National Championship soon.”
Photo: Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal