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Bethany Balcer takes ‘back way’ into National Women's Soccer League through tiny downstate Spring Arbor

By ANNE M. PETERSON

AP Sports Writer

Bethany Balcer didn’t come to the National Women’s Soccer League by way of a powerhouse college program like North Carolina or Stanford. She didn’t have a national team history and wasn’t a draft pick.

Balcer is soccer’s version of a walk-on wonder, forging her own path to the OL Reign.

The winner of last season’s league Rookie of the Year award has a starting role for the Reign as they navigate the Challenge Cup, the league’s tournament in Utah.

The Reign played to a 0-0 draw with Sky Blue in their opening match Tuesday. The team faces the Houston Dash on Saturday night as the group stage continues.

Against Sky Blue, Balcer started on the wing, although she’s also comfortable at center forward.

“There are things I like about both positions. I’m just trying to get comfortable with both and as good at both as best I can. I feel like I can be dangerous with my speed on the wing, but also as the nine. So I’m kind of back and forth,” she said. “I just want to be useful wherever the team needs me.”

Balcer, who is from downstate Hudsonville, went to tiny Spring Arbor University, a private school that plays soccer at the NAIA level.

She started all four years, earning NAIA Player of the Year honors in three seasons and helping the Cougars to two national championships.

She played for a couple of club teams but got her break when the Reign invited her to preseason training camp. She impressed then-coach Vlatko Andonovski last year and won a contract, becoming the first NAIA player to sign with an NWSL club.

Pushed into a bigger role because of injuries and World Cup absences, Balcer made the most of her opportunities and became the team’s scoring leader last season with six goals and two assists. She was the only player on the team to appear in every regular season match.

“I attribute a lot of my success last year to Vlatko,

” Balcer said.