Rock Chalk Weekly: The Albuquerque Connection
Written by Erin Meyer, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
The transition from high school to an out-of-state college can be challenging for some students, but for two Kansas soccer players, no such problem existed.
Kaley Smith and Ashley Williams both grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They first crossed paths in fourth grade when they played on the same team: the Classic Lasers. Eventually, the women reconnected when they both played for the Rio Vista Eagles club team, Smith for six years and Williams for seven.
“We’ve known each other since we were eight or nine,” said Williams. “We lived on opposite sides of town in Albuquerque, but we played on the same club team. She [Smith] is more like a sister to me instead of a friend because I’ve known her since we were little.”
Smith attended Eldorado High School, where she was a four-time all-state honoree and helped the Eagles to a state championship in 2009. Meanwhile, Williams played for Volcano Vista High School and was named the New Mexico State Player of the Year as a senior in 2011 after leading her team to a runner-up finish at the state championship.
While they may have played on the same club team growing up, their decisions to commit to KU were completely independent, much like their high school soccer careers.
Smith, whose older brother, Shane, played on the KU football team from 2010-13, attended a camp where head soccer coach Mark Francis first saw her and immediately took interest. Williams took the more traditional route and began her pursuit of a college athletic career with an unofficial visit.
“I just fell in love with the campus and tradition that KU had and I wanted to play in the Big 12,” said Williams.
Smith and Williams committed to Kansas and began their first season as Jayhawks in the Fall of 2012; their Albuquerque Connection seamlessly transferred to the Midwest.
“We’re very good teammates,” said Smith. “I think we relate on a completely different level from some other people and connect very well on the field. I know what she’s going to do so I didn’t have to make that adjustment period like I had to with other players.”
Though Smith and Williams have played and developed their soccer skills together, they have different styles on the field. Described as “aggressive and dangerous” by Francis, the senior forward, Williams, was named to the All-Big 12 First Team after the 2014 season and started in 15 of the Jayhawks’ 21 matches.
Unfortunately for Smith, she tore her ACL in 2012 before her first collegiate season at KU even started.
“I came in with a torn ACL so it was nice knowing someone could back me up,” said Smith. “She [Williams] was able to be like, ‘Yeah, she’s going to be a good player’ because I couldn’t prove myself right out of the gate. Having her there to encourage me, stick up for me, was extremely helpful.”
But then Smith was forced to redshirt for the 2013 season after another injury.
“Going through two huge injuries like that is devastating, not only physically but mentally,” said Smith as she reflected on her setbacks.
“As a coach it was tough. It was just really tough to just see her having to go through that, especially twice,” said Francis. “Ashley was very supportive and kept telling her [Kaley] that she’s ‘gonna be good’ and she’s ‘gonna be back’ and that the work she is doing will pay off.”
Smith came back strong and started all 21 games of the 2014 season, one of only four Jayhawks to do so, and logged the second-most minutes on the team. She headed up the Kansas defense, which ranked among the all-time best in program history, allowing only 17 goals in 21 games.
Williams was with her every step of the way, as a teammate and as a friend.
“I’m thankful that she [Smith] had the support she had to get back on the field because I knew that there was a great player right there. It was just waiting for her to get better and get out there,” said Williams.
Their years of being teammates and friends are helping their younger teammates on and off the field, as both are considered role models.
“Kaley has overcome several injuries and she comes back stronger and better than before each time. Ashley works extremely hard on the field and that just makes you want to work hard for her,” said Tayler Estrada.
“In terms of how they approach the game and how they approach training everyday, just trying to get better it rubs off on some of the younger kids,” said Francis. “Both of them are really hard workers and they’re really committed.”
Like Estrada said, Williams’ aggressive nature and obvious passion for the sport is a major motivator for her teammates. Her coach has noticed that desire to get better, too.
“As a forward, playing the position that she does you have to take the bumps, you get kicked and hit and Ashley deals with that really well,” said Francis. “She’s gotten tougher since she was a freshman and is a great demonstration of working hard.”
Due to her injuries, Smith has helped her teammates more off the field.
“Kaley is really book smart,” explained Francis of his junior defender. “She makes really good grades and she helps out some of the other girls, especially in science.”
Smith is studying exercise science while Williams is majoring in communications with a minor in sociology.
For both Jayhawks, having a teammate who shares a similar background makes life transitions easier both in the classroom and on the field.
“It’s nice having someone from home,” concluded Smith. “We talk about home a lot — like all of the things we miss. We joke about club soccer all the time and I think we just relate on a completely different level.”
Smith, a defender, and Williams, a forward, may not play near each other on the pitch but their “Albuquerque Connection” has extended into Lawrence and will remain strong, far beyond the game.
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