MICHIGAN CITY — Foot fairies, floppers, soft.
Soccer players get called plenty of names that put their toughness, athleticism and legitimacy in question; but don't call Marquette's Lee Kellom any of those. He's probably a better athlete than any of his critics ever will be.
If Kellom's stature isn't enough to convince anyone — standing well over 6-feet tall with the build of a linebacker, his aggressive, strong, athletic play as the Blazers' goalkeeper will do the trick.
It's not often a keeper is the most noticeable player on the field, but the Blazers junior was Tuesday against Wheeler. Highlight-reel saves and big-time performances typically put netminders in the spotlight, like when former-U.S. keeper Tim Howard recorded 13 saves against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. While those did have an impact on why Kellom stood out Tuesday, the way he plays all 80 minutes is truly the reason.
Early on with Marquette protecting a one-goal lead, a Wheeler through ball to Kellom's left found a forward who streaked clear of his defender, heading towards the 18-yard box. Most goalies would stand near the post to maintain sound positioning and wait on his defenders to come in and swarm the attackers. But not Kellom.
He saw the forward making his way to the ball and made a beeline for where the two would eventually meet. Much like diving for a loose ball in a basketball game — something Kellom is familiar with, considering he hoops for Marquette — he dove out with his body at an angle to protect the goal, slamming into the shins of the Wheeler winger. He grasped the ball tightly with both hands and gave his opposition a little bump, competitively showing who's in charge.
If that wasn't enough for people to take notice, how about taking a ball to the face?
In the 27th minute of the same game, Wheeler saw another chance to get on the board to tie the game. Its striker got a step on a Marquette defender and was charging to the net. Kellom anticipated this and decided his best move would be to go out and use his size and strength to his advantage.
He made his way to the top of the goal box, broadened his feet to create a low center of gravity and stuck his arms out to increase his coverage and chances of stopping a shot. Shortly after, the Bearcats striker struck the ball with force, smacking it directly into Kellom's chin. Instead of reacting to the pain he was surely feeling, he turned to his left where the ball ricocheted and dove on it to prevent a score.
That's one tough "foot fairy."
Plays like this are common place for Kellom, who plays his position well outside of the box, showcasing his athleticism and aggression. It's his first year ever playing soccer, but his style of play stems from a lifetime of playing various other sports, such as football, basketball and wrestling.
Kellom's favorite sport growing up was football, but Marquette doesn't have the sport, so as a versatile athlete with nothing to do in the fall, soccer emerged as a possibility. But it was never Kellom's idea to start playing the sport for the first time in his life entering his junior year of high school.
"All my friends on the soccer team came to me last year and were like, 'We need a goalie for next year,'" Kellom said. "They told me I'd be really good at goalie. I was like, 'Nah, soccer's not really my thing.' Then they just kept coming at me, like, 'C'mon, c'mon. Play, try out. You'd be good.’ They did this for the whole summer and toward the end of school last year. They just kept bugging me, so I thought, 'Might as well.'"
His friends' persistence made Kellom give soccer a shot; but before tryouts, he never expected it to come so naturally to him. Luckily, his natural athleticism and background in plenty of other sports helped make the transition a smooth one.
Kellom learned toughness from football, the aggressiveness to play on the ground from wrestling, vocal communication with his teammates from basketball, and the competitiveness from all three.
"The guy's amazing," said Marquette head coach Austin Cogdill. "He's an athlete, through and through, and has been a real asset to our team this year. A lot of times, the bigger dudes don't have the type of agility he's got. He's quick back there."
Not only have Kellom's experience playing a bevvy of sports growing up helped his young soccer career, it also has made him a vocal leader on the pitch, lining up his defense and taking control of situations — something that's vital for all goalkeepers.
With his aggressive style, diving on loose balls far from the goal and challenging opposing attackers to make a skilled play, it's imperative for Kellom to be loud and announce what he's doing. Being quiet could lead to a mix-up defensively, possibly costing his team the game. But being loud also gives him a leadership role when his team is out there playing.
"He's got really good team spirit and pumps the team up a lot," Cogdill said. "He talks a lot from the back, which helps a ton. Not a whole lot of players in the middle of a game have the resolve to remember what the coach tells them to do, and he does. He remembers it. And that's one thing that I really like about him. He's really coachable and is a really quick learner. I have more confidence in him each game we play."
While Cogdill is impressed with how quickly his keeper has adapted to playing soccer, he's pointed out that punting the ball downfield and goal kicks are an area where Kellom needs some improvement.
It's really nitpicking at this point, though. For a basketball player, football player and wrestler turned goalie, Kellom has surpassed both his and Cogdill's expectations.
There's no telling how high the ceiling can be with Kellom, whose gifted athleticism and ability to learn a brand new sport on the fly have served him well in just a few short months.