October 10, 2018 10:42:28 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Hailey Zerbel used to consider herself a daredevil.
Whether it was skateboarding or riding a dirt bike, Zerbel attacked her activities with an abandon that eschewed elbow pads or helmets.
As a psychology major, the Mississippi State junior forward/defender is capable of explaining how someone who grew up competing in gymnastics and loved to challenge herself could become such a natural at a flip throw, a move in which a soccer player runs, flips their body to place the ball on the ground, and then rotates to throw the ball in.
"I was kind of like the Tom boy with my sister (Jordan), and I used to skateboard with all of my guy cousins," Zerbel said. "We'd race each other when we'd ride dirt bikes. I didn't mind getting hurt or getting a little bit of dirt on me."
Zerbel and No. 23 MSU will look to improve their standing in the Southeastern Conference when they take on No. 5 Texas A&M at 7:30 p.m. Friday in College Station, Texas. The match will be broadcast on SEC Network+.
MSU (9-3-1, 2-3-1 SEC) is coming off a 5-2 victory against Alabama on Sunday in Starkville. Zerbel became the first MSU player to record three assists in a SEC game. Zerbel used her flip throw to get the ball into the box, where Brooke McKee headed the ball on frame. An Alabama player stepped in the way on the goal line, but Niah Johnson found the rebound just inside the left post and tapped it home.
In the 25th minute, Zerbel's throw went to McKee, who headed the ball across the box to senior Carly Mauldin, who headed it home for a two-goal lead.
Zerbel earned her third assist in the 35th minute with her head. Freshman Miranda Carrasco took a corner kick that Zerbel headed to Mauldin to make it 4-0 at halftime.
Zerbel, who said she never got hurt when she was younger and a daredevil, said her flip throws are more effective this season because she has so many teammates who are good at heading the ball. She said she learned how to do the flip throw when she was in the fifth grade after watching a girls soccer game at South Hills High (Calif.), which is where she went on to school. She said her parents, Rod and Rachelle, asked her if she thought she could do it, which is all she needed to give it a try.
"I tried it one day in my back yard and I fell the first couple of times, but after a week or so I got it down and have been doing it ever since then," Zerbel said. "My dad was with me when I first tried it. He tried to help me figure out when to let go of the ball because sometimes I wouldn't let it go at the right time and it would go straight up in the air and land on my head or something."
Zerbel said her father, who played football in college, laughed at the first missteps, but that didn't stop her from learning how to master the skill. Since then, she has earned a reputation for being the player who does the flip throw. She said she doesn't mind her reputation often proceeds her, even if it is more likely to see players doing flip throws in college than in high school.
MSU coach Tom Anagnost said Zerbel's throw-ins have been an important piece of his team's attack, but he said Zerbel isn't a one-dimensional player.
"She has good technique," Anagnost said. "She is a good soccer player. She understands the game pretty well. She is two-footed, she can head a ball pretty well, and she can communicate, too."
Zerbel transferred to MSU from Arizona State. The West Covina, California, native played in 32 games in two seasons for ASU, including six starts as a freshman. She has played in 83 or more minutes in each of the last five matches. Her previous high was 68 minutes.
Anagnost said Zerbel's versatility is so valuable because she can play anywhere on the back line, higher up as a flank forward, and as a center midfielder. Zerbel said she used to play forward in her club career before she was moved to defender. She said she takes pride in being more than just a player who can deliver flip throws to create dangerous scoring chances off set pieces.
"The flip throw is a huge thing, but I think I know myself and I contribute a lot more than just the throw-in to our team," Zerbel said, "but I do think the throw-in has helped our team tremendously. I don't think it is the only thing I can do."
Zerbel said she has worked hard at other aspects of her game so she didn't become one-dimensional. She feels she has learned how to accept playing new positions and challenges throughout her career, just as she welcomed the chance to show her parents she could do a flip throw like the high school player she saw as a fifth-grader. Now, though, she has matured into much more than that.
"I think as a defender I have done a really good job of winning balls in the air," Zerbel said. "I am definitely most proud of that because that is something I used to not be really good at, and now I have gotten stronger at it."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.