Haley Marshall froze as soon as the whistle blew.
Shortly after her father Corey Marshall signed her up for soccer, Haley, then only 4 years old, was on the field getting set to play her first game — only she didn’t really play.
Not knowing what to do when the official’s whistle signaled the start of the match, a terrified Marshall just stood there, bewildered by what was happening around her and looking frantically to the stands for her father.
She can still picture that moment with absolute clarity.
“I just wanted someone to get me off the field,” Marshall said. “I was so scared. I didn’t touch the ball. The whistle blew, and I just stood there. I was so nervous. I just stood in the middle of the field. I didn’t know what to do.”
But those early fears didn’t have hold sway over Marshall for long, not with all the soccer she has played since.
With 12 years of experience under her belt, the once-timid youngster now knows exactly what to do when she steps on the pitch.
“Now, I hate being off the field,” Marshall said.
Marshall, along with the rest of the Walker girls’ soccer team, head into a long offseason following a 3-1 loss to Runnels in their regular-season finale earlier this week. The loss concluded what has been a season-long struggle for the Lady Cats, who won just twice after winning 21 times in the previous two seasons.
For the second straight year, Marshall finished as Walker’s leading goal scorer, though her 9 goals this season were a far cry from the 24 she had in an attention-grabbing freshman campaign. Seven of her goals came in the first eight games, as her position in the lineup was in constant flux for most of the season.
At the start of the season, Lady Cats’ coach Cookie Orihuela envisioned Marshall as one of the center midfielders for his two-center mid attack, utilizing her skills to push the offense from the middle.
It took some time, but Marshall was finally able to grasp what her coach wanted of her by the fifth game of the season, when she scored three goals and assisted on two others in a 6-1 rout against Covington on Dec. 1.
“She’s talented and very knowledgeable of the game,” Orihuela said at the time. “But different players and coaches have different styles and philosophies, so getting her to understand what I wanted her role to be was what I was having trouble with. Now, she understands what I want from her, so she’s playing very well and the way I want her to play.
“The center mid is kind of like the quarterback position in football, and Haley didn’t know if I wanted to hold at center mid or attack. She was debating if she should dribble or shoot, but I wanted her to do both.”
Marshall’s role shifted as the young Walker club delved deeper into the season.
Needing help in other areas of the field, Orihuela would pull his top playmaker from the middle and plug her wherever she was most needed, using her up top to score goals as well as putting her on the back line to help stop them.
It’s not something Orihuela particularly wanted to do, taking his top scoring threat away from the offense. But Marshall’s overall knowledge of the game combined with her talent and ability enabled her to excel at many positions.
“She’s a really talented player, and she is always an asset wherever you put her,” Orihuela said. “She’s an exceptional ball-handler and has a real knowledge of the game. She knows how to play.”
For Marshall, as long as the move was in the best interest of the team, she was on board.
“I don’t want to stand by and watch my team get scored on,” Marshall said. “I hate losing.”
That competitiveness is something Brent Landry noticed early on.
Landry, who’s been a coach in youth soccer for the past nine years, has coached Marshall on and off since her days in U8 when she was 7. When Landry formed a U10 team a few years back, one of his first selections was Marshall, and the two have maintained that player-coach relationship ever since.
Along with her skills, Landry was impressed by how quickly Marshall picked up the game, but her bold, unafraid attitude stood out even more.
“She is definitely a strong-willed young lady,” Landry said. “That’ll be an asset for her for the rest of her life. It carries through into soccer. She never shies from a challenge on the field, which makes the perfect recipe for an athlete.
“That confidence really gave her a lot of the talents she has now because on the field, she never feels like she can’t do anything or someone was better than her. She was always willing to try and welcome those challenges. Her youth career has had many successes because of that.”
Before noting Marshall’s moxie on the field, there was something else that grabbed Landry’s attention, the same something that nearly all who watch her play immediately notice: Her speed. With the running ability of a track athlete, which Marshall is, she is usually one of the fastest — if not the fastest — players on field.
In fact, Marshall’s speed was what initially jumped out to her father years ago, as he watched her run around the bases with her three brothers at the Walker baseball fields, before she had ever put on a pair of soccer cleats.
That forced him to sign Marshall up for soccer, the only sport a 4-year-old girl could play, and she’s been enamored ever since.
Though Monday’s match against Runnels signaled the end of the Lady Cats’ season, that doesn’t mean Marshall will get a break from soccer — far from it.
This spring, Marshall will resume play with Capital City United, a club team out of Baton Rouge coached by Anthony Neeson, who has also been an assistant coach for the Southeastern Louisiana University women’s soccer team for three years.
Unfortunately for Marshall, she’ll be unable to attend the Olympic Development Program in Montevallo Ala., this summer, something she’s done for the past three years. Instead, she hopes to make up for it by going to an ID camp, where aspiring college soccer players can get a taste of what collegiate soccer is like, sometimes with college coaches in attendance.
It doesn’t stop there: Marshall even dabbles in indoor soccer at a complex in St. Gabriel, where the game is played much differently than on the turf at Wildcat Stadium.
“People shove you up against the walls and you get carpet burns when you fall because you’re playing on carpet, not turf,” Marshall said. “It’s one of the worst feelings when it happens.”
Despite the extreme nature of indoor soccer, Marshall said it provides her an opportunity to try different tricks that wouldn’t be possible in a regular game, such as passing the ball to herself off the wall and taking it in for a goal.
If all that isn’t enough for Marshall, she can always make the short trip from her home to the Livingston Parish Soccer Association fields less than a block away, so long as she doesn’t take her bike through the neighbor’s back yard.
Marshall spent countless afternoons juggling soccer balls on those LPSA fields, mostly with her father watching. For hours at a time, Marshall would try to keep the ball off the ground by bouncing it off her feet, knees and head, each time trying to beat the previous day’s mark.
By her count, Marshall once reached 319 touches without letting the ball hit the ground, though she can’t remember how long it took.
Sometimes, Marshall will joke with people when they heap praise on her after a game, saying it’s her first time playing the game.
It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“For me, it’s soccer, soccer, soccer,” she said with a laugh.