By: Kyle Charles
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Late in the game against West Virginia during the 2012 season, Kansas Soccer head coach Mark Francis decided to substitute Ali Kimura into her first collegiate game. West Virginia was in its inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference, a proven force rolling its way through league competition. Kimura rose to the challenge, firing off two shots in just six minutes of play.
Looking back on the game, Kimura admitted, “I had no idea what I was doing. I was so nervous, but it was really fun. I was excited.”
The final result was a 1-0 defeat, but it marked the start of an unbelievable college career with an already improbable origin.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, Kimura was not on Kansas’ roster. In fact, Kimura was not even on the radar of the Kansas coaches. Kimura graduated from Shawnee Mission South in 2011 as the career goals leader after four years as a varsity starter. She opted to turn down offers to play soccer at Tulsa or Drake, instead enrolling at Kansas as what she describes as a “normal student.”
Kimura was never recruited by Kansas and she had no plans of trying out for the team. A native of Overland Park, she ultimately chose the University of Kansas to stay close to home and her family. Both parents, Steve and Mauree, attended medical school at Kansas. She arrived on campus with the sole purpose of completing her education, choosing to major in exercise science.
When asked about what school was like her freshman year, Kimura said, “I wasn’t as focused. I did whatever I wanted each day because I didn’t have a set schedule.”
Kimura’s soccer involvement was limited, only playing recreationally for the women’s club team her freshman year. The men’s club team practiced with them, and also served as competition for the women’s collegiate team during its practices. Kimura again joined the club team the beginning of her sophomore year at KU.
Midway through the 2012 season, injuries had depleted KU’s roster and the coaches were asking members of the men’s club team if anyone knew of any women capable of playing at the collegiate level. One player spoke up and told assistant coach Jessica Smith about a “really athletic, quick kid on the women’s club team” who the coaches should check out, Smith recalled. The coaches invited her out to practice the next day.
“This was absolutely a rare occasion,” Smith explained. “Ali’s story is extremely unique. I can’t remember when we’ve actually picked someone up on our roster from a tryout.”
Smith went on to describe the typical process with walk-on players “We rarely look for outside players. If there’s a walk-on on our team, it’s because we’ve recruited them and sought them out.”
However, injuries created the exact rare and unique circumstance that led to Kansas adding the fast and athletic club team member to its roster. The team was 6-2-1 entering conference play and looking to continue its early season success.
It did not take long for Kimura to find her footing. Exactly three weeks after seeing action for the first time against West Virginia, she tallied her first collegiate goal late in a 5-0 victory in Lawrence against Northern Colorado, the last opponent of the regular season.
“Everyone ran up and hugged me and I was like ‘YES!’ I was just ready for that,”Kimura remembered of the moment after netting her first career goal.
A fitting end to an unbelievable regular season for Kimura, the goal announced to opponents that she was quickly becoming an offensive force to be reckoned with for the Jayhawks
Kimura possessed the skills and athleticism necessary to compete in Big 12 soccer, but has since come to be known on the team for the positive energy she brings to each practice and game.
“I’ve never seen a Division I athlete who doesn’t get mad on the field,” Smith stated. “She does it all with a smile. It’s refreshing.”
Kimura certainly has reason to smile this year, starting 14 of 20 games in her senior season. She is tied for third on the team in goals scored with three, third in points with 13 and is first on the team in assists with seven.
In two years, Kimura has gone from a typical college student playing soccer recreationally, to an integral member of a KU squad that began the season with a dominating 8-0 start and finished third in the Big 12.
“It’s a testament to her work in the weight room, on the field and the extra work she has done individually,” Smith explained. “This opportunity has transformed her experience but she has also given so much to our program.”
Kimura’s three successful seasons on the team also established the routine she lacked her freshman year of college in order to excel academically.
“When I started, they had tutoring set up for me, we had all these meetings, we had practice, it really got me going on a very set schedule,” Kimura said. “It was really helpful for my school work.”
On Oct. 24, Kimura took to the field in Lawrence for the last time. During a post-game ceremony she and five of her teammates were honored for Senior Night.
“I love playing with all those girls and our coaches are great. It’ll be sad to leave,” Kimura reflected a few days after Senior Night.
The light-hearted culture of this year’s Kansas soccer team led to the best result in a decade and Kimura has been the catalyst of that positive energy.
Smith explained, “She is always making people laugh, whether she means to or not. She definitely keeps the team grounded.”
Kimura’s lively spirit will certainly leave a lasting impact on the Kansas program.