The Way You Move

A magical finishing touch and mesmerizing skills make <b>Marian High (Mich.)</b> senior forward <b>Courtney McCracken</b> one of the nation's most dangerous soccer scorers.

Courtney McCracken is an airhead. At least if you believe what she tells you. In the context of an extended family that routinely draws 100 relatives to holiday gatherings, McCracken is the reigning, resident goofball.

Not exactly what you'd expect from one of the best scholastic soccer players in the country.

"I'm the airhead in the family," admits McCracken. "I'm definitely the goofy one. They always make fun of me or start laughing at me because I can't tell a story. I always get off track before I finish."

Of course, whether or not the Marian High senior forward can tell a tale as eloquently as James Earl Jones reading a bedtime story is of little consequence. What's notable is that her reputation for failing to get to the point at home is the exact opposite from McCracken's personality on the soccer field. As a two-time All-State selection and a 2003 NSCAA/adidas All-American, she finishes and makes points in a fashion every bit as dependable as the sunrise.

McCracken entered this season averaging 1.25 points (goals and assists) per game during the first three seasons of her scholastic career, recording 48 goals and 37 assists in 68 games — of which the Mustangs had only lost 10. As a junior, she tallied 21 goals and 11 assists to lead Marian to the Division 2 state title with a 22-1-2 record.

Despite being one of the most closely marked offensive players in the state since her freshman year, McCracken defies all conventional wisdom to continue putting balls in the back of the net.

"She's the type of player you want to start a team with because of her ability to finish," says Marian co-head coach Christopher Courage, 38, now in his 10th year with the Mustangs. "She's your No. 1 draft pick. Because when the opportunity is there, she'll score."

"You can't forget about her at any point during the game," agrees third-year co-head coach Barry Brodsky, 48. "She has that quick-strike ability. You can stop her for 79 minutes, but in that next minute, she'll get the winning goal. And she comes up big, especially in the big games."

Point is, when her impact matters most, McCracken doesn't hide from her designation as The Franchise. She simply finds the net and uses any means necessary to do so depending upon the circumstances. Circumstances she must both recognize and react to within a fraction of a second — and a fraction faster than the defense.

Perhaps it's an ambidextrous ankle shot. Or a sliding shin volley. Or a slicing ball off her instep or a topspin scorcher. She also has an uncanny ability to go airborne, where her scoring wizardry is arguably at its peak, routinely resulting in headers to the back of the net or re-directs to teammates right on the doorstep.

"I think I handle myself well up top in spite of my size," says the 5-foot-5, 130-pound McCracken, 18, who was still undecided between Michigan State and a collection of smaller Midwest colleges at press time. "I think I'm pretty strong compared to most defenders trying to mark me. But my real strength is that my decision-making is pretty right on. If I feel I can make a shot, I'll take it. If not, I'll give it to someone else who may have a better one."

McCracken's unselfishness is a trait made all the more lethal by the elite teammates surrounding her. Two-time All-State midfielder Meghan Garrity, bound for Marquette next year, owns a reliable set of feet to give the ball up to. Meanwhile, returning All-State goalkeeper Lea Perz, headed for Western Michigan, and gifted defender Jess Deneweth, undecided between Johns Hopkins University (Md.) and Washington University (Mo.), surely make McCracken less nervous about over-committing at the offensive end.

Shiny puzzle pieces aside, it is McCracken who snaps everything into place.

"Her confidence on the ball is something you really can't teach at the high school level," says Courage, a former Seaholm High midfielder. "Her willingness to take players on offensively is very strong, and it makes everyone else around her better."

That confidence springs from the fact that McCracken works tirelessly to hone her competitive edge. She trains for several hours at a local health club on every non-practice day. Without fail.

Ultimately, McCracken has her parents — Patricia, a former high school hoops player, and Tom, a former Indiana University of Pennsylvania football and baseball player — to thank for that. Fact is, kidding about her storytelling ability aside, the entire family has been exceedingly supportive of McCracken's commitment to soccer, which includes time-consuming obligations to her Vardar Club travel team. Her 80-year-old grandmother, for example, attends every game.

"We have a huge family, and it's one of the most important things in my life," says McCracken, whose Middle Eastern ethnicity is Chaldean, descended from a Persian Gulf Babylonian tribe. "My grandma (who was born in Iraq) is one of the most inspirational people in my life. My parents introduced us (19-year-old sister Lindsay and 17-year-old brother Nick) to soccer at an early age. I played on a U-8 team and I didn't stop."

If you ask coach Courage, McCracken won't stop any time soon.

"I don't think she's done developing as a player," he says. "She's going to get better and better. She came to high school and immediately started and was clearly many steps above what most freshmen come in at, but high school is still clearly a developmental level. Wherever she goes, she's going to get better."

Which will give her quite a story to tell her family.

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