At the risk of venturing into hyperbole on a Big Apple scale, I haven't seen anyone this season who is a demonstrably better soccer player than Columbia's Sophie Reiser.
Go ahead, scoff. It's the Ivy League, after all. Sure, Princeton made a surprising run to the College Cup in 2004 and Yale reached the third round a year later, but Columbia made its first and only NCAA tournament appearance in 2006, has double-digit all-time wins against just one school (Iona) and is 0-3-0 all time against teams currently in the ACC or Pac-10. So can Reiser really hang in a conversation with the likes of Kerri Hanks or Megan Rapinoe?
Absolutely. And she's the most obvious reason why major conference heavyweights should hope the Lions, currently tied for first in the Ivy League and 7-2-1 overall, don't find their way into this year's NCAA tournament.
"She's absolutely relentless and she is as driven as any player I've ever played or coached," Columbia coach Kevin McCarthy said of Reiser. "Her drive to play is absolutely fierce. It's tangible; you can feel the strength of her will on the pitch. So we're very fortunate to have Sophie in our program, and it's really a joy to coach her."
The first time I heard about Reiser was in Yale's pregame meeting before Yale's Senior Day toward the end of the 2006 season. I spent that fall writing an all-access series on the Bulldogs and I remember coach Rudy Meredith going over the scouting report on Reiser and Shannon Munoz, the two top attacking players for a Lions team on the verge of clinching a surprising league title. Columbia won that day, and two weeks later, Reiser and the Lions pushed host Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA tournament before eventually falling 2-1.
For the Seattle native, it was confirmation that choosing established academics had been the right choice -- she could help establish the soccer side of things. With Reiser, Columbia is 26-12-8. Before her arrival, the program had a 126-178-14 record.
"All of us, I think, came in knowing we were going to be the class that would make the difference," Reiser said. "And it's really just what you want to make of it as a player -- if you want to come into a school that hasn't won the league before and assume you're not going to, or if you want to take that extra step and know you're going to be the difference."
Now she appears to have another postseason-caliber partner in freshman Ashlin Yahr (not to mention freshman Liz Wicks and sophomore Chrissy Butler, both skilled players who are currently sidelined with injuries). In Saturday's overtime 2-1 win at Brown, Yahr and Reiser teamed up on the first goal with chemistry beyond their years. As Yahr dribbled at full speed down the left side, Reiser cut across her path and made for the flag while calling out instructions. Yahr waited a beat for the angle to open and then delivered a perfect ball along the touch line that Reiser collected and cut back inside before bending a far-post shot into the top corner.
As impressive as the teamwork was between a freshman and junior in early October, it turns out they needed only about 10 minutes to establish it. That's how long Reiser recalled it took Yahr, playing with her, to score three goals in an early team scrimmage.
"I was so, so excited," Reiser recalled. "It was kind of the reason that made me want to step up and play center forward as opposed to center mid [her natural position], because we seemed to click so well together. She has a great touch, a great work rate, and I think we see a lot of each other in each other. And we've just really enjoyed playing together so far this season."
In the game against Brown, just about the only instructions bellowed Reiser's way by the coaches had to do with giving up her debates with the referee. But out of her earshot, an assistant's murmured exclamation at one of Reiser's typical displays of delicate touch in the midst of all-out aggression offered a succinct evaluation of her play.