Marnie Merritt has been preparing her whole life to be a part of something special.
Her love of soccer came at an early age; Merritt found her home in the net around the age of 12. Quickly realizing her field skills weren’t quite up to par with the other 12-year-olds, her coaches put her in the goal, and it stuck.
For Merritt, an all-state and All-American player on her North Carolina high school’s state champion team, the move certainly worked.
Now as the starting goalkeeper for an undefeated Ole Miss team, Merritt has only allowed one goal in the Rebels’ nine games this year (in a 1-1 2OT draw against top-25 ranked Michigan).
However, the idea of playing at the NCAA level was something of a dream for her.
“I can tell you that I would have never, ever thought that I would play college soccer; 6-year-old Marnie would be shocked that I’m here right now,” Merritt said through a smirk. “But you reach an age in your career and decide, ‘Hey, this is something I want to do’ and make a life of it.”
Merritt, who realized during her freshman year of high school she wanted to play in college, committed to Ole Miss as a junior. Throughout the recruiting process, the decision became a matter of where felt most like home and which program offered the biggest opportunity to be involved in something bigger.
“I was told to go where they show you the love, go where you can make an impact and go where you can make a difference,” Merritt said. “At the time, Ole Miss was a program on the rise who were making their name in the SEC, and I wanted to be a part of something like that.”
Merritt said she found the transition between high school and college sizable but manageable. Redshirting her freshman year, she benefited from a full season of learning how the game is different, how the Ole Miss system is run and how SEC soccer is played.
“In club and high school, you’re there to be a shot-stopper,” she laughed. “Now, in the college game, you’re involved more with your feet; you’re involved more in every aspect of the game rather than just saving the ball when it comes to you.”
Goalkeeper coach Rob Thompson has helped Merritt work to compete on the highest level during her move from high school to Ole Miss and throughout her time here on the team. Thompson, who was a three-time all-conference and two-time all-region player at Lock Haven University, has extensive experience as a goalkeeper coach on both the professional and collegiate levels.
“He has been that motivator, that inspirer,” Merritt said. “Learning as much as I can from him, not just about goalkeeping but about soccer in general, like when we watch film, has been a big factor in my drive to keep going and to be the best.”
Along with his knowledge of the game, Thompson brings a rigorous practice schedule full of realistic game situations and scenarios. Keying in on preparation, the more looks Merritt gets in practice, the more ready she is come first whistle.
“We’re very prepared for almost every situation that you’re faced with in the game,” she said. “Rob makes sure that the stuff I see every day in net is realistic to what I’m going to see in the game. You just have to trust that what you’ve done and what you’ve worked hard for is going to take over, and save the ball.”
Merritt said she finds herself looking to different athletes for inspiration on different things, but they’re not always stars of her sport. Gravitating toward strong female leaders, she grew up watching Mia Hamm, has seen firsthand what Alex Morgan has done to positively grow the women’s game and loves watching Serena Williams dominate her craft.
“You watch these women at such high levels and think, ‘I want to do that,’ or ‘I can achieve that,’” she said. “They paved the way for girls like us who, when we were younger, or even just a few years ago, soccer wasn’t a big deal at all, and now we’ve had the most-watched World Cup to date.”
Regardless of her idols, coaches and inspirations, when it comes down to game time, Merritt only knows how to be herself. Locking into what she calls a “slobberknocker mentality,” it’s all out for 90 minutes.
“Hard-working, blue-collar, someone that you know that when (she) steps on the field (she’s) going to give it (her) all,” Merritt said. “That’s the mentality I carry with me and try to provide to the team. You should be willing to sacrifice anything and give it all for the result you want.”
Just nine games into her redshirt junior year, Merritt is enrolled in graduate school at Ole Miss, which will carry her through a fifth and true-senior year on the field. Looking ahead, the goal is to continue her career professionally.
“I would hope I can play at the pro level,” she said. “Whether that’s overseas or in the U.S., it just depends on what happens these next couple of years.”
However, first comes the Rebels’ next test of the 2017 season. Taking on a prominent 6-1 Florida Gator program in the first SEC matchup of the year, Merritt will hope to continue her hot streak in the net and leave Florida 1-0 in conference play.
“Every game in the SEC has turned into a battle,” she said. “I think any time we get an SEC win, it’s a big motivator to say, ‘OK, let’s keep going. We can be successful.’”