Florida State University center fullback Malia Berkely recently was named Atlantic Coast Conference’s defensive player of the year. PROVIDED
Photo: LARRYNOVEY2018
Photo: LARRYNOVEY2018

Local soccer player’s star still rising on international stage

Berkely, 21, is on of the best players for annual powerhouse Florida State University, which won the NCAA championship last season. She has been on U.S. national teams since about 14, and played three games with the national Under-23 team this spring in La Manga, Spain. The U-23 team is the highest age group below the full national team that won the World Cup this year.

Mark Krikorian, her FSU coach, calls the redshirt junior one of America’s best defenders.

“I think Malia has the quality to go on to have a long career, both as a professional player and as a national-team player,” he said.

In overtime recently against Wisconsin, she juked to the right around a defender and kicked a rocket from nearly 30 yards away into the back of the net that FSU posted on Twitter with the word “Unreal!”

Berkely “combines an absolutely wonderful attacking quality with very, very good defending as well,” Krikorian added. “She can control the tempo of a game from the back line, and that’s a rare quality in the game today.”

RELATED: Badin grad Berkely on winning national title: ‘An awesome feeling’

She has been a gifted player for years — part of two Division III state championships at Badin High School, and Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and senior. But she raised her game significantly the past two college seasons, and surprisingly benefited from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee she suffered the last preseason game in 2017.

Todd Berkely, her father who coached her at Badin, said she improved her fitness and knowledge of the game while she watched her teammates from the sidelines.

“It refocused her and got her maybe more appreciative of the gifts that she has, because she had to work and start from ground zero all the way back up,” her father said. “I think she realized, ‘Wow, with this 100 percent, I’m really able to do some things that even before I wasn’t able to do,’ because her fitness went up so well.”

She recently was named defensive player of the year in the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference.

Being on the sidelines for a season was difficult, “but I think it humbled me in a way to realize that everything can be taken away at one point, so I think that’s why I stepped up my game a little bit,” she said. “I just want to give my all in everything I do now.”

Also, she made a point of sitting next to the coaches, listening to coaching points players can’t hear during the game. She saw open spaces and dangerous situations from a completely new perspective, and told her teammates about them.

Florida State was a No. 1 seed entering the 64-team NCAA tournament .

Berkely, a business-management major, hopes to have a career as a professional soccer player.

During the final games of last year’s ACC finals and NCAA tournament final, FSU twice beat the University of North Carolina, whose goalkeeper was Samantha Leshnak, also of Liberty Twp., who attended Mount Notre Dame High School.

“We actually, I think, lived 10 minutes from each other, which is funny, because we both ended up in the national championship game, what, 18 years or so later,” Berkely said. “It’s definitely very cool. We’ve always been friendly. After the game, I was obviously a little more happy than she was. But it was all very friendly, went up and gave each other a hug, and I knew that was her last year and that she was going to go pro, so I wished her luck in all her endeavors and she is really an amazing keeper.”

Leshnak now plays for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League.

When Berkely was about 12, and Lavelle was a few years older, they played together in a game at GameTime Training Center, with Berkely playing because more players were needed.

“It was fantastic to watch, because you had this amazing girl, Rose, with just sublime foot skills. And then Malia in there at a young age, with all of her foot skills, but much younger.”

“Watching them play together was just spectacular,” he said.

RELATED: Dutch Lions GM looks back on U.S. World Cup star Lavelle’s time in Dayton

“I love playing for the national team, wearing the crest on my chest and just playing for the country,” said Berkely. “This is my version of fighting for our country. That’s how I see it. And it was an amazing opportunity. There’s amazing players all over the world. All the different styles. And getting to play against it, see it, and try to implement it into my game is one of my favorite things to do.”

Badin spokesman Dirk Allen remembers Berkely being “just a friendly, unassuming teen who would disappear for a few days to play on a U.S. national age-group team, then come back and catch up on her work, and be a part of the Badin family.”

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