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Goal Queen: Yochum's inspiring rise to No. 1

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Grace Yochum didn't think she would play Division I soccer.

She stood on a field in Houston preparing for a club soccer match at a showcase full of college coaches, hoping one might find her good enough.

On one sideline, Colin Carmichael folded his lawn chair and departed. Thirty minutes into the match.

He’d seen enough from his potential recruit.

Negative thoughts flooded Yochum’s mind.

“Obviously, I’m not gonna play college soccer,” she said of her mindset that day.

Yochum wasn’t supposed to still be playing for a scholarship. In her sophomore year of high school, Yochum committed to Mississippi State. Months later, she was back to nothing. A retracted scholarship after a coaching change left her looking for a new school. MSU’s new coach wasn’t interested.

OSU was interested but needed to see some more, making this match a tryout.

“After seeing them walk away I was like, ‘Well, that’s it for me,” she said.

Wrong.

“Literally watched her play for like 30 minutes and was sold,” Carmichael, OSU’s coach, said. “Like yeah, this kid is the real deal. Talked to Grace after the tournament. Got all the financials worked out and she became a Cowgirl. We were really excited that it worked out that way.”

In the years that followed, Yochum progressed from unwanted to an indispensable Cowgirl star. Last week, the fifth-year senior midfielder became OSU’s career leading goal scorer at 36 with a header against Stephen F. Austin. She added two this past Sunday.

****

How did she rise from off the radar to top of a program? Call it a process.

Yochum said she struggled to settle in Stillwater. New state. New environment. New team.

Her parents, John and Mary Yochum, noticed. She wasn’t her energetic self.

"She was robotic,” John said.

Grace didn’t have any expectations regarding playing time and the unfamiliarity caused an off-brand personality.

“It was very different than who she typically is,” Mary said.

Grace needed time to develop trust with new coaches. She said she didn’t want a lot of playing time. She was scared. She developed in each practice. Carmichael started to notice. She started 18 matches and became a member of the All-Big 12 Freshman Team.

In October 2019, Grace broke her collarbone. One of the first major injuries in her life. Again, Grace needed to learn from this setback. Despite the injury, Carmichael had a request.

“He was like, ‘I need you to step up and I need you to be the best teammate you've ever been in your life,’” Yochum said.

The next season, she led the Big 12 with 12 goals. The work showed. Now, Carmichael said she’s a pro level player.

“Ninety percent of Grace Yochum’s success is Grace Yochum,” he said.

****

Mary wrote several angry letters to Mississippi State.

“It was just handled so badly,” she said. “It crushed her. It could’ve sent her out of soccer.”

SEC scholarship? Gone. The timing didn’t help.

In college soccer, scholarships are limited. If a prospect is uncommitted in the spring of her junior year, scholarships are full at most schools.

“It was a terrible time,” Mary said. “Truly, one of those moments in her life that I’m sure she will never forget. It’s a defining moment when you get to decide how you’re going to respond to something.”

Her passion for the sport subsided. She was used to winning and success. Her passion returned when a program offered a second chance.

****

Grace walked to the end of the line.

Any time the whistle blew, she ran away from the ball. The high school version of Grace wanted no part in penalty kicks. A decisive moment that can change games.

She didn’t want to be the game changer.  She would rather have someone else do it.

Funny how habits change over time.

In 2021, she fooled goalies with three match-winning penalty kicks. The whistle, the shot and the celebration.

Now, she pumps her fist, screams and hugs her teammates. No longer the timid freshman.

“Whenever I see her out there celebrating, running and enjoying things, those are my favorite times,” Mary said.

Grace’s passion for the sport bleeds into her teammates. In team huddles, she leads pep talks and expects excellence.

The ideals of teamwork and cooperating with others filled Grace’s aspirations. In her achievements, she’s the first to credit teammates; not herself.

On multiple occasions, Yochum said she did the easy part by scoring the goals. Her teammates set her up with tap-ins. Her parents constantly support, making the trip from Houston for each home match.

"They are the biggest constant in my life and have honestly been one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today," she said.

****

Grace never wanted to leave middle school. Her friends, classes and activities. Loved it all.

Same with high school. College, too. That's why she returned for a fifth year.

“Only kid I’ve ever known in my life that didn’t want to leave middle school,” Mary said.

Grace attacks each task with full enthusiasm and a growth mindset.

“She pours herself in 100%,” Mary said. “Grace doesn’t dream these giant big dreams that she chases. She just continues to excel and is elevated because people see her potential. I don’t think she’s done yet. I don’t think we’ve seen the best she has to offer yet,” she said.

Some athletes thrive in individual sports with a one-on-one aspect. Not Grace. Whatever she does, she does for the team.

“She never really wanted to stand out (in an individual sport),” John said. “She always excelled in a team environment because she likes the camaraderie, she likes the vibe and she likes the sense of doing it together.”

Grace still wants to win. That never changed. She wants to beat you. In everything.

“She’s got that emotion that she just loves to play and compete,” Carmichael said. “I think that’s infectious and I think that rubs off on all the other players.”

In practice, she will trash talk anyone. She said it's not in a malicious manner. said. Only to create a competitive environment.

"There’s a balance between having fun and when to be serious and I’m all about trying to find a balance," she said. "I do think that there are times to let loose, kind of get under people’s skins and I’m all about that.”

Sometimes the talk raises intensity, but Grace said it's all with good intentions.

“I’m out there to have a good time, kind of rile people up, get under their skin and make them uncomfortable a little bit,” Grace said.

Uncomfortable. She said she felt that way her freshman year. But her methods of welcoming teammates are how she morphed into her current version.

Grace as an energetic, high-volume goal scorer. Not shy and scholarship-less Grace. Now, she attracts attention because of her results.

"I wasn’t a freshman that came in thinking I expected X, Y and Z," she said. "I thought I need to put my head down and work for it and anything that I’ll be given is going to be earned. 

On road trips, she’ll sing karaoke with her voice at full blast. Some teammates try to sleep. Good luck with that.

After a road Bedlam win in 2020, that’s exactly how she celebrated.

"I’m going to get the mic and we’re going to have a good time,” she said.  “A win makes the bus ride a lot shorter and a lot more fun.”

Before big matches, Grace patrols the locker room with intent. She’s ready to play but are her teammates?

She will grab chairs and chuck them on the floor. She will stomp on them and yell into the void. Defender Kionna Simon likened the routine to a performance from a WWE wrestler.

“I’m like ‘This girl is crazy’ but it definitely (makes me) feel the energy,” Simon said.

****

Grace said she’s happy her record pursuit is over. No more stress.

“Just to be able to move on and just start playing is now what I’m really looking forward to because it’s kinda a monkey off my back,” she said. “I had that weight lifted.”

Just like her recruitment process.

During that match in Houston, Grace said she couldn’t focus for the rest of the first half. She played for a scholarship and thought she failed.

At halftime, she couldn’t stop crying. Her club coach told her the news. She became a Cowgirl.

“He was like, ‘No, they want you’ and I fell to the ground all dramatic, of course,” Grace said. “It was such an emotional experience.”

Now, she's a Cowgirl record holder.

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sports.ed@ocolly.com