Kaylan Marckese

Florida goalkeeper Kaylan Marckese decided to play soccer in college rather than volleyball.

The University of Florida will not forget Kaylan Marckese.

Kaylan prowled the six-yard box all four years of her collegiate career in Gainesville. She’d deflect, catch, punch and kick most balls that came her way, and opposing defenders were hard-pressed to find the back of the net so long as she was its sentinel.

She had 250 career saves and the school record for shutouts. She averaged less than a goal allowed per game for her entire career and will likely go down in UF history as one of the school’s greatest goalkeepers.

There’s another sport, however, that won’t forget her any time soon.

Once upon a time, Kaylan Marckese was a dual-sport athlete. Once upon a time, she faced a choice that defined her athletic career.

Once upon a time, Kaylan Marckese chose soccer, much to the delight of UF soccer fans and the chagrin of the rest of the Southeastern Conference.

Kaylan’s love of sports started off simple enough.

She learned to throw everything from a frisbee to a baseball. She swam competitively. She was invited to play travel softball. She dabbled in flag football. She attended basketball camps in the summer. And she played soccer and volleyball. When she was younger, she’d even make up new sports with her neighbors when they’d exhausted all the other ones.

“I loved to be outside, to play and run around,” Marckese said. “Sports were the way to go, especially coming from a neighborhood environment.”

While Kaylan’s knack for sports was clear, there came a time when she had to narrow her focus in order to hone her craft.

“She had to make a choice,” Michael, her father, said. “To be good at anything, you have to put the time in.”

She ditched swimming first. It’s an individual sport and not the type of competition she was looking for. The rest were whittled down until she reached two: soccer and volleyball, the sports she went on to play in high school.

Kaylan excelled in both sports. She recorded 129 kills in her freshman year at St. Petersburg High School and 169 as a sophomore. She often played against older kids on her club volleyball team because she was more physical than the players in her own age group.

Eventually, Kaylan began to notice a shift. On the soccer pitch, she dealt with a broken thumb her sophomore year. It prevented her from starting in goal too often, but she saw limited action in other positions. She returned to her normal goalkeeping duties during her junior year for the Green Devils.

“I just realized that I loved going to soccer practice every day,” she said. “And I loved volleyball practice, but there were some days where I was like ‘Ugh, I really don’t want to go’. But that never happened for soccer.”

When it came to volleyball, there were concerns about her height. Kaylan is currently 5-foot-11 and hasn’t grown much since high school. She was never particularly tall for an outside hitter.

“She was either going to be a DII volleyball player or a DI soccer player,” Michael said. “She wanted to go to a big school.”

Her club volleyball coach, Courtney Draper, is now the head coach at USF. She asserted Kaylan’s height wouldn’t be a problem on the court. She attempted to lure Kaylan to play at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where Draper was coaching at the time. She also offered Kaylan a full scholarship and to find a way to have her play soccer simultaneously.

“There’d probably never be another athlete ever to have that opportunity,” Draper said. “We felt like, ‘Let’s work together and see if we could make it happen,’ because she would have made both of (Eckerd’s) programs so much better.”

Soccer eventually won out. Because the two ran at the same time, Kaylan gave precedence to soccer and attended soccer practices and games if they overlapped with any volleyball activities. Although she was excited for her upcoming opportunities on the pitch, it still wasn’t easy to leave the court behind.

“She got a different fun out of volleyball,” said Kaylan’s mother, Kristi. “Soccer can be very stressful.”

In her junior year, she began to take visits to various universities with an interest in soccer, and it wasn’t long until a certain soccer coach reached out with an intriguing offer.

Becky Burleigh was a frequent visitor to Kaylan’s club soccer matches. The University of Florida coach needed to replace a local legend in Taylor Burke, who allowed just .86 goals per game throughout her four years of starting.

“Her club coach was able to put the team into very large tournaments where soccer coaches like Becky Burleigh would attend and scout the players,” Michael said. “Becky was one, and Kaylan was very fortunate that she had quite a few opportunities to go to quite a number of DI schools.”

Kaylan still entertained other offers. On top of the in-state USF and FSU, she embarked on visits to West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston University and talked to other schools over the phone.

There were a few things she was looking for. She wanted to be a part of a program that felt personal. She wanted to go somewhere with academic prestige.

“Kaylan’s a really bright student, and obviously UF is such an amazing academic school,” Burleigh said. “I think that was a huge draw for her.”

But there were two aspects of her search for a new home that impacted her the most. The first came from the top.

“I think she had such a strong, positive role model in a female coach that she was like, ‘That’s what I want,’” Kristi said.

Kaylan’s decision came down to UF and West Virginia, both of which had female head coaches. Burleigh asked Kaylan if she would come to Gainesville a year early and forgo her senior year. That declaration was a significant turning point in her recruitment.

“I really did like the fact that Becky offered me a spot a year early,” Kaylan said. “Once she kinda mentioned that, I had my sights set on that.”

Although the prospect of skipping out on her senior year would be daunting to some, both Kaylan and her parents had no doubts about the process.

“I was 100 percent (on board),” Michael said. “Kaylan’s always been a mature, thoughtful person, and she does extremely well in academics.”

Kaylan’s other selling point was familiarity. She wanted to go somewhere close to St. Petersburg but not too close.

“(Gainesville is) far enough away that I can get home for a weekend if I want to, but it’s also far enough away that I don’t have to go home for dinner everyday,” Kaylan said.

UF seemed to be her Mecca. Her pilgrimages to and from the swamps of north central Florida fulfilled her need. She realized that when she went to the campus for the first time.

“When she came back from the Florida visit, I asked probably, ‘How was the visit?’” Michael said.

“I felt like I was home,” Kaylan responded.

Despite returning to play volleyball for the St. Petersburg High Green Devils, Kaylan’s decision to focus on her soccer career was set in stone, and Draper made one more effort to get her former club volleyball player on the court at South Florida.

“If (Kaylan) wasn’t able to play professional soccer immediately after college, I would even take her at USF as a fifth year,” she said.

She’d have an offseason to train with the team. Draper, who still makes the offer to Kaylan nearly every year, asserted her confidence in Kaylan’s abilities.

“Just being a strong, fit Division I athlete in a different sport, I still feel like she could get it back with the snap of a finger,” Draper said.

While Draper may have been unsuccessful in bringing Kaylan to the court in Tampa, she still makes sure to support her every chance she gets. Whenever the Gators played USF during Kaylan’s tenure as their goalkeeper, Draper and her family were always in the stands to cheer her on.

“One of the times, I was able to bring my own children to see her play as well,” Draper said. “They wanted to sit behind the goal, and they were yelling for her the whole time… She was almost an extension of our family.”

Kaylan Marckese chose soccer. She wants to pursue it professionally. But despite leaving volleyball in her past, Kaylan never forgot it.

“Even coming to Florida, I love going to volleyball games,” she said. “I hang out with the volleyball team. I think it’s something that I’ll always be very interested in, something I’m passionate about even though I’m not playing.”

 

Follow River Wells on Twitter @riverhwells or contact him at [email protected].

 

River Wells is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida women’s tennis team. He has previously covered UF swimming and diving. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.