MERRILLVILLE | When Merrillville opened the season with a 4-2 win over Portage, it turned some heads. When it beat Wheeler it turned a few more.
Soccer fans in the region are beginning to take notice of the Pirates, who now have three wins on the year after a 4-0 win over Lowell, and perhaps the big reason for that is sophomore A.J. Marquez.
"I want to get a reputation," Marquez said. "I want to change everybody's mind about Merrillville."
That seems to be the pervading theme in the Pirate locker room. And it seems to be paying dividends.
The 3-4 record may not seem all that impressive on the surface, but it already bests the win total of the past two season combined -- 1-15-1 two years ago and 1-16 last year.
Credit the turnaround to the determination and quality of play Marquez has demonstrated on and off the pitch. After her freshman season, she was voted MVP by her teammates. That's not an honor usually bestowed upon a frosh.
"The players just understood that she was that good," coach Ben Daniel said.
Marquez has played all of the field, from mostly defense in 2010 to forward and midfield in this campaign. Wherever she's played, she's stuck out.
"If I need something accomplished, I feel safe to know that she'll get it done," Daniel said. "I'm moving her to midfield so that she can get the ball and create for us."
As a sweeper, she played a major role in a Pirate defense that allowed 60 fewer goals last season than it had the year before.
"It was all because of A.J. on defense," Daniel said. "She shut down teams, almost single-handedly at times."
The focus has shifted this year, as the primary goal is to put the ball in the back of the net. Marquez will handle much of that responsibility.
"I want to score more goals," Marquez said. "I can take that on because I can motivate myself more than others."
Aside from the obvious skill Marquez has, Daniel beams with pride when discussing his star sophomore's personality and demeanor.
The girls soccer team often works the concessions at Merrillville football games. That's a job, Daniel said, that can be difficult to find volunteers. Marquez texts him in advance to make sure the job gets done.
"She's one of the best kids I've ever coached," Daniel said. "She's already talented, but she's always willing to learn and she's never disrespectful of the other players or coach."
Marquez said her biggest priority is to help the Pirates get out of the sectional bracket this year. That would really turn some heads.
"This is not the last you'll hear from her," Daniel said.