User ID: Password:

September 15, 2010

Diamond in the rough - Marika Gray's academic goals led her to the soccer field, and she's been quite a find for the Hokies

By: Matt Kovatch

Marika Gray

As a high school student, all Marika Gray wanted to do was to go to college and become a surgeon. Now a senior biology major, the Alexandria, Virginia, native is still on the path toward doing so, but a funny thing happened along the way.

She became one of the all-time greatest players in Virginia Tech women’s soccer history.

Entering her final campaign, which began in late August, the 5-foot-7 forward’s name was already all over the record books. At season’s start, Gray held the school record for career game-winning goals with nine and was tied for first in multi-goal games with five. She ranked fifth all time in points (54), third in goals (22), sixth in assists (10) and third in shots (153). She will undoubtedly climb the rankings in each of those categories as the 2010 schedule plays out, but it was never anything she planned on doing. In fact, she didn’t even want to play soccer beyond high school.

“I loved the game but I didn’t think I wanted to waste all of my time playing soccer,” Gray said of her plans while a student at Hayfield Secondary School. “I was definitely not like some people who know from seventh or eighth grade that they want to play college soccer. I just wanted to go to college, go to class and then call it a day. I thought I might play on a club team, but varsity sports were definitely not something I was looking into until late in the game.”

Don’t think of Gray as nonchalant, however. It’s not as if she isn’t a forward thinker. She had her college search underway long before playing soccer entered the picture – “I had planned to do biology even before I graduated high school,” Gray said – partly because her elder sister of three years, Valencia, had already gone through the process.

All the while, she continued to play soccer in dominating fashion for both her high school and club teams. It was evident, through both her numbers (school records in goals scored) and awards (three-time all-region and all-district honoree), that she had the talent to continue her career. It wasn’t long before Virginia Tech head coach Kelly Cagle found out about the speedy attacker.

“People who were supportive of our program just kept saying, ‘Look, I don’t know if this kid wants to play at the next level, but she’s certainly deserving and capable of doing so,’” Cagle remembered. “It kind of went from there.”

The line of communication was open on Gray’s end as well.

“The trainer from my club team actually knew Coach Cagle, and he asked me if I would think about Virginia Tech,” Gray said, recalling how much fun her friends were having at the time talking about the schools recruiting them. “I did some research and decided it [playing in college] might be something I would love to do. He got in contact with her and that started the recruiting process.”

Cagle and her staff started to attend some of Gray’s club team games and liked what they saw. Because Gray hadn’t exactly been promoting herself to play at the next level, she wasn’t playing on as high profile of a team as most elite prospects do.

At first, Marika Gray had no plans to play soccer in college, but she’s ended up becoming one of the best Tech players in school history.

“She wasn’t as heavily recruited as I thought she should have been,” Cagle said back in 2007 at the time of Gray’s collegiate debut. “She was good enough for us to take notice, but her club team wasn’t very good and the entire team filtered through her, which on some days, allowed other teams to focus on shutting her down. Thankfully, it kept her a little bit hidden.”

Cagle was convinced on Gray, but would she be able to convince the future surgeon to fit some soccer in during her spare time? After all, Gray’s dad was always wearing a Virginia Tech hat on the sidelines. Might there be a connection?

“We’re definitely not in the business of begging anybody to come here, so I don’t know if ‘convincing’ would be the right word,” Cagle explained. “But she came to our camp after we were able to see her play, and I just remember sitting underneath a tree with her talking about her future and the future of our program. We talked about how she could grow as a player just like our program could grow.”

Luckily for the Hokies, Gray’s father wore that hat because Valencia had chosen Virginia Tech herself during her college search. Marika was on all of the family trips to visit Blacksburg, so she was sold on the school before cleats and shin guards were ever mentioned.

“At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to the same school as my sister,” Gray said. “I wanted to try to spread out the wings and do my own thing. But I found that I wanted to go to Virginia Tech just as much as my family did. For school, it was actually very good, especially with my major. I fell in love with Tech just like my sister did.”

Gray arrived in 2007 and immediately made an impact, becoming the first Hokie in five years to lead the team in both goals (eight) and assists (six). She also earned second-team All-ACC honors and was named to the Soccer Buzz Freshman All-America third team. She was off to a similarly hot start as a sophomore, registering four goals and two assists throughout the first eight games. Unfortunately, a serious knee injury cut her season short on Sept. 21, 2008.

“It was pretty hard to deal with,” Gray admitted. “I never actually had soccer taken away from me before. I had a couple of sprained ankles here and there, but nothing where my season was officially done.”

However, the knee injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Gray in more ways than one. First of all, being unable to compete renewed her fervor for the sport.

“From Marika’s mouth, she’s stated that the injury really got her passion back for the game because of the time that she had to take off,” Cagle said. “She was out and that makes you appreciate what you have a little bit more. I think that opportunity was not a passerby for her. She really took the chance to take a step back and it allowed her to enjoy her junior year.”

“When you lose something, you really realize how good you had it,” Gray echoed. “It made me realize that my body is not unbreakable.”

Teammates celebrated with Marika Gray last season after she notched one of her school-record nine game-winning goals.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Gray’s knee injury helped her to formulate a better opinion on what she wants to do after her soccer days are over. She’s long wanted to be a surgeon – she just didn’t know what kind. After going through the process as a patient, however, she hopes one day to work as an orthopedic surgeon.

“I want to specialize in knees and shoulders so I can work with athletes,” Gray said. “After my knee surgery, that definitely had a big effect on exactly what I wanted to do. Having gone through the experience myself, I can always help my patients by giving them tips on how to do things and how everything will go.

“They say that when you go to medical school, there are so many other options that you come across that you’ve never even thought of. You think you want to do one thing, but then you find that you love something else. For now, though, the injury definitely helped me with pointing me in the right direction.”

Gray returned to the soccer field in 2009 and led the Hokies to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, a feat that they hope to match this season. While there are still many things left to accomplish on the pitch in 2010, Gray – just like she did years ago while still in high school – has her eyes turned toward her academic future. Instead of applying to medical schools now in hopes of beginning next fall, she plans on taking a year off first – but not without good reason.

“I’m planning on trying to find work while taking an MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] course,” Gray said. “Of course, with the time I devote to soccer, I wouldn’t be able to take the course and get the full advantage of it, especially since they are pretty expensive. So I’m going to take a year off, prepare for the MCATs, and apply for med schools then. I don’t want to shell out the money for a class that I could barely go to and not get the full advantage of it.”

Much like Gray has excelled on the field, Cagle is convinced her star forward will have no problem doing the same off the field.

“Her family has really been supportive of her academic growth, and I think she’s driven to continue to grow even after her college days are over,” Cagle said. “She’s always been driven by the sciences and the classroom. I think the opportunity here at Virginia Tech has also supported her goals academically – it’s been a good balance for her. It’s nice to be able to have somebody who has academic goals but who also has the ability to flourish athletically as well.”