BY AARON BRENNER | email@example.com
AUBURN, Ala. – On a grander scale, the age of the multi-sport college athlete has given way to specialization.
Where have you gone, Bo Jackson? Sure, now and then, there’s a Becca Wann at Richmond who can soar in basketball and soccer, or odd cases like Olympic sprinter Lolo Jones trying her hand at bobsledding.
But at the major conference level? Playing two sports? Seriously?
“It’s one of those things where you kind of almost laugh about it,” former Auburn soccer player Caitlin King said, “because it’s so unheard of.”
Caitlin’s younger sister, Julie, isn’t laughing. She’s living a dream – a four-year soccer standout who’s winding down her first and final year as a key contributor off the Auburn women’s basketball bench.
“I’m just floored I’ve been able to experience both here,” King said, “at my dream school, at Auburn University.”
Funny story: the St. Louis native absolutely refused, once upon a time, to connect the words “dream school” with “Auburn University.” Did not, could not, would not … until a header goal on a rain-soaked pitch in Kentucky changed Julie King’s course.
FALLING FOR AUBURN
Caitlin could empathize. Her oldest sister, Meghan, went to Ole Miss, and Caitlin intentionally steered clear of Oxford. That was Julie’s rationale, too.
“They were recruiting me pretty heavily, but I didn’t want to follow my sister either,” Caitlin said. “Julie’s always kind of been a homebody. From the get-go, when she started looking at schools, she really was interested in staying close to home.”
Her junior year at Nerinx Hall, with plenty of soccer and basketball accolades, Julie was offered by a few lower-level Division I programs in the Midwest to play two sports.
“Ultimately, I decided soccer was the way to go,” Julie said, “because I knew if I tried to play both, I wouldn’t be able to compete at the highest level in either sport.”
Julie was extremely interested in Kentucky, so the Kings strategically planned an official visit for the final weekend in September 2006. That’s when the Wildcats hosted Auburn, so the family could watch Caitlin play as well.
“But, again,” Julie’s quick to reiterate, “I had zero interest in Auburn.”
Auburn won in double overtime, when Caitlin knocked in the game’s only goal with her noggin off a corner kick. Julie adored Caitlin’s teammates, how they played, how they were coached.
“They had no interest in recruiting me, because I told them I had no interest in them,” Julie remembered. “It was just, (the coaches) meeting Caitlin’s little sister.”
But Caitlin’s little sister suddenly had a change of heart.
“Immediately, I was like, oh gosh, I think this is the place,” Julie said. “I hadn’t even been to Auburn before.”
The family suburban took off back for St. Louis. Julie didn’t know how to break the news to her parents, since she’d long demanded they not persuade her to join Caitlin.
Julie pushed aside her fears, and somewhere along Interstate 64, she quietly spilled the beans. The Kings were stunned initially, but elated at their youngest daughter’s decision.
“I am so glad I decided to do it, because my soccer experience ended up being amazing,” Julie said. “Yeah, I was her little sister … I’m not going to say we didn’t fight every once in a while, but it was a good environment for me, and it helped me really blossom as a soccer player.”
By the way, so much for little sister syndrome: Caitlin and Julie “had a blast” living together on campus for three years.
Yet Julie had no problem being Julie, rather than Caitlin’s little sister, thanks to her instant impact on the field. She started 87 of 89 matches from 2008-2011, leading the Tigers to four NCAA tournaments, and winning an SEC tournament championship along with co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors her senior season.
Back for a fifth year in school to finish her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies – she graduated Dec. 8 – King’s soccer eligibility was expired.
But not so for other sports. Like basketball.
BLOOMING INTO BASKETBALL
It had long been an itch Julie wanted to scratch.
In high school basketball, King’s motto was “run fast, run hard, play hard defense”. Even then, she wasn’t a great spot-up shooter, but she was an all-state performer.
She couldn’t play intramurals or pick-up basketball throughout college, forced to rest her sore ankles in the soccer offseason.
King, 23, played soccer professionally in the summer of 2012 with the Boston Breakers, a member of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League. Then she was around this fall helping the Tigers as a student assistant coach.
Head coach Karen Hoppa always knew Julie once wanted to play college basketball. So did Auburn women’s athletic director Meredith Jenkins.
Meanwhile, first-year basketball coach Terri Williams-Flourney was desperate for numbers. When ‘Flo’ campaigned Jenkins for potential recruits, Julie’s name was instantly discussed.
It all happened so fast. A casual inquiry from Williams-Flourney to King, an impromptu tryout at Beard-Eaves Coliseum, and just like that, Julie was a Lady Tiger again, trading in spikes for hightops.
In her first days in the gym, Julie was somewhat in awe of her new teammates’ athleticism. But she wasn’t overly daunted, and it took no time to earn their respect.
“I think she got it right away, just because she didn’t dog it at all,” Williams-Flourney said. “She’s first in sprints. She’s giving it extra effort. All they could say was, gosh, she plays hard.”
The coaches would call her ‘the soccer player’ from to time. But the players have none of that; they back her up as a basketball player, a point of pride for King.
King’s goal was never to be the leading scorer or the bench warmer. A competitor and a team player, she knew her role was somewhere in between.
That’s exactly what transpired. She’s played all 29 games, averaging 9.5 minutes, 1.2 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.6 steals.
“She probably became more important than she thought she would,” Williams-Flourney said. “As a soccer player, coming in only having played basketball for three months …”
Her voice trailed off, shaking her head over King’s rise.
ON TO THE PROS
Kevin King played two years of Missouri basketball, and two years at Saint Louis
University. No qualms from him or his wife, Julie, this winter.
“Of course, they were ecstatic,” Julie said. “My dad was just over the moon, because he really wanted me to play (basketball).”
So there were the Kings, beaming in the top row of the floor risers along the sideline at Auburn Arena on Sunday in the Tigers’ 74-65 win over Mississippi State.
One daughter. Two Senior Days.
“It’s the best. That’s something we never thought we’d ever see,” Kevin said. “It’s been a real privilege for her to be able to play basketball at Auburn. It’s phenomenal that she was allowed to do it.”
Julie’s parents have missed very few of her 118 career soccer and basketball appearances, and they’ll be there in Duluth, Ga. today when Auburn (16-13) takes on LSU in their SEC tournament opener.
It won’t be long before King’s back in her natural domain. She agreed officially Wednesday night to return for a second summer season to play for the Boston Breakers of the National Women’s Soccer League. (Boston was previously part of Women’s Professional Soccer, which folded after last summer.)
She’ll be flanked by defender Heather Mitts, midfielder Heather O’Reilly and forward Sydney Leroux, each members of the U.S. Women’s National Team. All three won gold medals last summer in London.
King is on track to complete her Masters in adult education in May 2014, and has thought about coaching soccer in the long-term.
But first things first. She’s got a basketball postseason to finish first.
The best of both worlds.
“It was a tough decision, because she really loved basketball, and she still loves basketball,” Julie’s mother said. “But she’s really glad she chose soccer, because now she’s moving on and she’s going to play professionally. It’s her passion.”