Rock Chalk Weekly: Can't Stop Salazar
Written by James Saat, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Just try to keep her from her goals.
This was not supposed to happen. Liana Salazar, midfielder on the University of Kansas soccer team, had just finished a great freshman year. A strong debut season saw her notch three goals in Big 12 play, tied for fifth-most in the conference and culminated with her placement on the Big 12 All-Newcomer Team and NSCAA All-Central Region Third Team. All signs pointed to the talented underclassman building towards an even better sophomore year. Then she got tangled up with NCAA eligibility.
“The English classes I took here didn’t have any credits so when the second year started I didn’t have any credits,” Salazar said. “I was a year behind school-wise.”
Salazar, who hails from Colombia, did not speak any English before arriving at Kansas and spent her first year taking English as a Second-Language (ESL) courses. Though many international student-athletes at KU have remained eligible after taking ESL courses, the NCAA did not count Salazar’s ESL classes as credits toward graduation. The NCAA’s decision on the case came just two days before the 2012 preseason.
Not only did Salazar have to sit during her sophomore year, but also her opportunity to play in the years afterward was questionable. She would have to cram two years’ worth of classes into one year in order to have a shot at playing in her third year at KU, which would be her redshirt sophomore year. Salazar, who still was learning English, did not shy away from the monumental task.
“At the beginning when I knew I wasn’t able to play I was like, ‘Okay I need to do whatever it takes to come back,'” said Salazar.
It would not be the first time Salazar had to overcome a hurdle to play soccer. Growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, Salazar could not find any youth girls’ soccer teams to join. Despite a strong international presence in both men’s and women’s soccer, Colombia did not offer much support for girls’ soccer on the local level. So Salazar joined a boys’ club. Soon she was standing out on the field for reasons other than being the only girl.
“It surprised (the boys) because many times I played better than some of them,” she said.
Despite what others thought, Salazar’s family supported her playing soccer with the boys. “My mom and my brother always supported me,” Salazar remembered. “They didn’t care about what people said.”
When she turned 13, Salazar joined her first girls’ team, a regional club that travelled throughout Colombia facing other regional clubs. This started a journey that would cement Salazar’s status as one of the best soccer players in Colombia. In 2008 she earned a spot on the Colombian U-17 national team, appearing in three matches in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. Two years later, she represented Colombia in six matches in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. By 2011, she was placed on the senior Colombian national team, just in time for the World Cup.
“That’s something you always dream of,” Salazar said. “By that time I was 19, 20 years old. It felt amazing to be pretty young and already be on that level. I was so happy because I achieved my dream to play for my national team. It was just a fun experience.”
Competing on the highest level for her country on the world’s biggest stage provided Salazar one of her favorite soccer experiences to date. She even started a match against the United States, then the No.-1 ranked team in the world. The World Cup was followed by an appearance in the London Olympics, where she played in two matches. The little girl who was teased for playing soccer with boys was now celebrated for playing with the best.
Despite the opportunities provided by the national program, the lack of professional leagues in Colombia for women forced Salazar to look up north for opportunities. Tape of her in the U-17 and U-20 World Cup found its way into Coach Francis’ inbox. Liking what he saw, he offered her a roster spot. Salazar decided to join the team and face the challenge of attending a U.S. university without a background in English.
“In the beginning it was pretty hard to realize I’m here and I don’t know how to speak and I can’t talk to anybody. It was a process but I made the decision to come here and I had to learn English,” Salazar said. “My teammates helped me a lot to learn the language, how to be involved in the culture, and how to act. They helped me pick up my English quicker.”
No matter how fast she picked up English, there still was a risk that her ESL classes would jeopardize her eligibility.
“We knew it might be an issue,” Kansas head coach Mark Francis said. “The thing I thought was very unfair by the NCAA was that they didn’t take into consideration was that she was playing in the World Cup the first summer before her freshman year and the next summer she was participating in the Olympics. They should have given her a little bit of a break.”
“I’m never going to tell a kid ‘Hey I think you shouldn’t go to the Olympics. I think you should stay here and go to school.’ We could’ve done that, and she would’ve been eligible, but I wouldn’t feel right telling a kid that when she may never get that opportunity again.”
Salazar was still picking up the nuances of English when she embarked on her mission to complete 60 credit hours in one year: 21 in the fall and spring semesters, 12 in the summer, and 6 during winter break. Though she did not have to worry about balancing the heavy course load and playing in games, she still had to keep up with practice to stay in shape and maintain her skill level. This would be Salazar’s greatest hurdle to getting on the field.
One year, many late nights studying, and several pounds of textbooks later, Salazar was celebrating academic eligibility. On top of that she was named to the Athletic Director and Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Rolls.
“When I realized that I was able to play again it was a relief because I knew that I had worked so hard. I worked everyday to academically be ready,” she said, smiling. “When my academic advisor told me, it was like, ‘Finally!'”
Salazar had overcome an obstacle that even her head coach suspected would keep her off the field.
“To be honest I did (doubt her) because it was so much. I never had a kid, especially someone who’s taking classes in a different language, take that much. It was inconceivable, not only to take that many, but to pass that many, and she passed them all,” remarked Francis. “She did well in terms of grades too; it was unbelievable.”
Her redshirt sophomore year saw Salazar pick up right where she left off at the end of her freshman season, garnering All-Big 12 First Team honors after tallying three goals and three assists on the season. Yet not many were prepared for the absolute explosion that would occur the following year.
A Jayhawk squad unranked in the preseason got off to a blistering 8-0 start, the best in school history, aided by Salazar’s right foot, which directed six balls to the back of the net in that span. Those first nine games set the tone for the rest of the season. Kansas finished with 15 wins, third most in school history and good for the best Big 12 finish since 2007 and the sixth NCAA tournament bid in school history, the first since 2011.
Salazar, whose KU career was in jeopardy just two years before, experienced a career year while helping KU record a historic season. The midfielder kept the pressure on opposing defenses by launching almost three shots per game en route to scoring a career-high 13 goals, the second-most scored in a single season in program history.
“Last year I just found myself playing at a really high level. I was in really good shape,” Salazar said. “At the beginning of the year I set some personal goals and before every game I told myself, ‘You can do this.'”
The same determination and goal-oriented approach to work that made Salazar the only girl on a boys’ team, a World Cup veteran and Olympian, and an honor roll student in her second language helped her turn in one of the best performances ever by a Jayhawk on the soccer pitch.
Returning to Colombia after an excellent season in Kansas, Salazar faced another obstacle, making the Colombian 2015 World Cup team. Though she ultimately did not secure a roster spot, her response on the roster snub should make Kansas fans excited about her last season as a Jayhawk.
“I went to Colombia to participate in two camps with the national team right before the World Cup. When I got there the coach said, ‘You’re an amazing athlete, you have everything to be on the team. But you haven’t been a part of the process, you just got here two months ago.’ You just can’t walk on to a World Cup team,” Salazar said. “On the one hand I wanted to play in the World Cup but at the same time I knew that I have things to finish here and my priority is KU right now. This summer I was thinking more about KU and how I want to finish my senior year. I know I’ll have another opportunity with the national team in four years. My national team wasn’t my priority.”
Thirteen more goals and another trip to the first round of the NCAA Tournament will not satisfy Salazar. She wants a Big 12 title and a Sweet 16 trip. Such a season would count as one of the greatest ever at KU. Her coach sees no reason why Salazar cannot lead the team to new heights.
“I anticipate her doing better than she did last year. She made great progress. She looks really sharp right now and came prepared,” Francis remarked. “She definitely started off the year playing at a high level.”
Her determination to succeed in the sport has never relented from the day she first touched a ball and has caused her to accomplish great athletic and academic milestones. Yet she has raised her commitment even further this year.
“I want to focus all my energy, all my talent, and all I have on KU right now,” Salazar concluded.
Just try to stop her.
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