I’ve called Memphis home for 22 years now, so I’ve seen my share of University of Memphis athletes, from lithe (volleyball players at Elma Roane Fieldhouse) to large (football players at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium). Among the hundreds of student-athletes I’ve seen play live, exactly three seemed to be playing a game unfamiliar to their teammates and opponents — a level above you might say. The first was Penny Hardaway, the All-America basketball player who electrified fans at The Pyramid from 1991 to 1993. The second was DeAngelo Williams, the All-America tailback who became the fourth Division I college football player to rush for 6,000 yards during his days as a Tiger (2002-05).
My third stop-what-you’re-doing-and-watch Tiger athlete can still be seen (four more home games) at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex. She’s the remarkable Christabel Oduro.
First, the numbers. Having scored 39 career goals, Oduro is four shy of Kylie Hayes’s Tiger record of 43. Oduro’s 100 career points has her within two of Hayes’s record (a soccer player earns two points for a goal, one for an assist). She scored 16 goals as a sophomore for the best team Memphis has yet put together, a club that went 22-1-1 and didn’t lose until the second round of the NCAA tournament. Oduro was named Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year in both 2011 and 2012, the Memphis program’s last two seasons in the league before moving this year to the American Athletic Conference. And the best Oduro numbers of all? The Tigers are 54-17-5 since she first took the field for the U of M. Her ink in the Memphis record book is quite permanent.
But the numbers merely suggest the impression Oduro makes on the soccer pitch. “She’s made a tremendous impact on this program,” says Tiger coach Brooks Monaghan. “She’s a player with special traits, extremely athletic and quick. Christabel has grown not only as a player, but also as a person. She’s a game-changer. At any time, she can score. She can create changes on her own. Her ability to beat players one-on-one, and her finishing has improved over time. We like her to play wide, to isolate herself. She’s realized that playing her position the right way creates more opportunities.”
Oduro has played college soccer a long way from home, having grown up in Brampton, Ontario (west of Toronto). She was a four-sport athlete in high school, also playing basketball (point guard), volleyball, and running cross-country at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School. But don’t think soccer — or any of the other high school sports — were at the top of her childhood list. “I didn’t actually like soccer, initially,” she says with a smile. “Thought it was kind of lame. I wanted to play hockey, like all the little kids in Canada. But my parents said it was way too expensive. My older brother played soccer, so they put me in a program [at age 7]. I was terrible. The next year, I moved to outdoor soccer and something clicked. I loved the game.”
Oduro has had a scorer’s finishing touch as long as she can remember, but recognized in high school that she had to move to the U.S. if she wanted to take significant strides as a player. As for her decision to come to Memphis, it came down to her recruiter and a style of play. “I wanted a scholarship,” she notes, “to get school paid for. Coach [Monaghan] recruited me late, but the style of play really got me. It was possession-based, fun to watch. I thought it was a team I could possibly make better by the time I leave. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to be known for.”
Known casually as “Dro” by teammates and friends, Oduro’s stamp on the Memphis soccer program is evident without a score sheet. “She wears her emotions on her sleeve,” says Monaghan, “which can sometimes get you in trouble. She’s the first to challenge a referee. But she’s gotten better with that. Our players feed off her emotion. She’s a winner, extremely competitive. And you need those kind of players on a team.”
Her time in Memphis has flown by, almost as quickly as an Oduro shot from the top of the box. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she says. “I came in, unsure about things, nervous, wanting the seniors to like me. And now ... I’m a senior, and I know how the freshmen feel. It can be hard coming in.”
In reflecting on the goals she’s scored, Oduro is fond of one this year against Alabama, where she split a defender’s legs with the ball before hitting the net. But her favorite memory is a larger picture, that of the 2011 season (her sophomore year), where all seemed right with her soccer world. “That was a great group of girls,” she says. “Every game, we came out like, ‘We’re gonna win this.’ If we were down, we fought back. If you have all 11 starters on the same page, you’ll have the synergy for success.”
As for the future, Oduro feels like an NCAA tournament run remains on her path. And she hopes to play in the new National Women’s Soccer League (the 8-team circuit that began play last spring). And then there’s the 2015 Women’s World Cup, to be played in, yes, Canada. Oduro is among a pool of players vying for roster spots on the Canadian national team. “I don’t consider myself a member of the team [yet],” she says. “I get called to camps. But that is my goal.”