Her feet may be on the turf but her head is on a swivel and her game is at an unusually high level for such a young player. During Friday night’s soccer home opener, University of Michigan freshman Alia Martin spent the evening looking around as if she was searching for her lost puppy.
But it wasn’t a frantic look. It’s calm. Measured. Calculating.
Martin is always examining and reexamining her surroundings. Moving to the right, but glancing back to the left. Heading to the center of the field but aware of what’s going on behind her.
These are her new surroundings. College. Ann Arbor. Center mid for the Wolverines – a challenging position for any player, let alone a freshman.
A center midfielder has two very different goals out on the soccer field. They basically play both ways and are responsible for disrupting what the other team is trying to do while at the same time creating plays for their own team.
And that’s what Martin did on Friday night in the Wolverines’ 2-0 win over the visiting University of Washington Huskies.
“She just dominated that space in front of the defense,” said Michigan head coach Greg Ryan. “She did a fantastic job. She connected us, won her head balls and all of her tackles.”
Rolling the dice with an all-Freshman midfield, including one in the center of the field, isn’t something most coaches would feel comfortable doing. While Ryan isn’t exactly comfortable enough to kick off his shoes and lean back in the recliner just yet, he’s already fairly relaxed considering the players involved.
“I have tremendous confidence in our freshman this year,” he said. “It’s a fantastic group of kids, both on and off the field. I knew they would be fine (in the midfield). But they did some learning over the course of the game. There was stuff happening that they hadn’t seen before, so they were learning on the fly.”
Martin, from Carmel, Ind., said as the game played on, her nerves settled, allowing her impressive skills and knowledge of the game to eventually take over.
“Jitters at first,” she admitted afterwards. “We had a couple preseason games which helped with the adjustments to the college game but still everyone is pretty amped up for the first real game.”
Especially for a freshman playing a very important position on a soccer field.
“Coming in as a freshman and knowing I was having to play a key role at center mid/holding mid, the coaches did a great job preparing me for (Friday),” says Martin who wears her smile as comfortably as that Michigan home white jersey. “We were going against some great, experienced players on Washington. It was a great game and super exciting to play.”
Martin was a standout player for four years at Brebeuf Jesuit High School, leading her team to the Indiana State title in 2015 and runner-up in 2016. She was a Gatorade Indiana Girls Soccer Player of the Year in 2015 and Indiana Sports Awards Girls Soccer Player of the Year in 2016.
She also was a four-time First Team All-State selection.
Martin’s skills also have been showcased on the national and international stage. She has been invited to several U.S. U-17 WNT camps (2014); U.S. U-15 GNT Player Pool (2013); ODP Regional Team (2010-13); International Regional ODP Team (Germany and Costa Rica in 2011-13); and ECNL/id2 National Camps (2013-14).
Martin, who played club soccer with the Eclipse Select and Indiana Fire, has experience, skill and that “it” special quality few players ever develop. And she feels quite at home roaming the midfield.
“Playing center mid is a lot of anticipation,” she says. “You have to keep your head on a swivel, especially in that holding mid. You are distributing from the holding mid but you also have to anticipate and watch and track player’s runs and pass them off to your defense.”
While she has danced on the national and international stage, Martin says getting her feet used to the college game is “a whole different level.”
“It’s not just the speed of the game but the intensity of the game,” she said. “Players are amped up and really want to win.”
Ranked No. 36 overall and the No. 14 midfielder in the Class of 2017 by Top Drawer Soccer, Martin says she chose Michigan because she felt at home – and for good reason. Her sister, Reilly, is a junior forward on the Wolverines. Reilly picked up an assist on Michigan’s first goal in the win over the Huskies so it was a real nice evening for the Martins from Carmel.
“That was a big reason,” she says glancing over at her sister walking off the pitch. “I have family here. I looked at other places but when I came here to visit it just felt right. I love the campus, the coaches and the players. Everything just fit.”
And having big sister around makes it feel extra “special.”
“She has always been a big influence on me and has always pushed me to be better,” Alia says. “It drives me to be better and play like she plays. She keeps me level and keeps me motivated and when necessary, kicks my butt.”
While Alia has grown up with a soccer ball at her foot and it’s become a lifelong passion, it’s not her entire life. It’s just “part” of her life.
Before arriving in Ann Arbor, Martin experienced an experience of a much different kind in Punta Gorda in southern Belize.
“It’s completely the opposite side of the spectrum,” she said of her eight days spent in five Mayan villages in the jungle, working mostly with children. “It wasn’t a mission trip, it was more of an emersion trip. It was about getting to know the culture, getting to know the people and breaking down the barriers. We got to meet these kids and visit them in their homes. It was incredible. It was something you can’t fully describe.”
And Martin can’t “fully describe” what she wants to do with the rest of her life. But one can sense there is a plan being formed.
“I really don’t know,” she says still wearing that smile. “I do love school. I love culture. I love to travel. I love soccer. I’m just feeling things out and seeing what feels right.”
There is no doubt that playing center midfield in Ann Arbor feels right, looks right and is the right fit for Martin and these talented Wolverines.