By Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tori Bailey believes in making the most of what she has. Good thing she plays for a coach who feels exactly the same way.
Bailey, who stands at exactly 5-feet tall, is one of the shorter athletes in collegiate soccer, but she’s playing tall for Tennessee, which makes its 10th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance beginning on Sunday vs. Miami (Ohio) at 2 p.m. ET in Knoxville.
“I think being short is such a gift,” Bailey said. “I use it to my advantage just like anything else. I might not be the best ball handler, but I’m pretty quick and just use that to my strengths. I can change speeds pretty quickly and I’m pretty agile.”
The junior from Fenton, Mich., has started 20 of her team’s 21 matches this season and both of her goals this year have been game-winners. She helped lift her team to a win over then-No. 11 Missouri earlier this season, handing the Tigers one of their only two regular-season league losses.
Bailey, who had played midfielder her entire life before arriving at Tennessee, spent her first two seasons primarily at the defender position. When head coach Brian Pensky took over the Lady Vols program in January 2012, he wanted to make sure he put his pupil in a position where she could best maximize her strengths; Bailey returned to being a midfielder.
“Going back to midfield is kind of what I’m used to,” Bailey said. “Just being able to be a part of our offense has been so special. Our team loves to play the possession. That’s my type of game: finding the ball and being able to connect with the back line and the front line. My strength is being able to find the ball and give it to other people.”
Bailey’s tenacity and stifling style of play easily frustrates the opposition, and her quickness makes her tough to evade.
“People say I kind of remind them of a fly,” Bailey said with a laugh. “I love playing simple, but with a lot of give and gos, and I love moving a lot. I just really get myself in tricky situations and tricky spots.”
But things weren’t always as simple for Bailey.
She heard all of the reasons why she shouldn’t play. She was told that the qualities she possessed were weaknesses, not strengths.
That only fueled her competitive fire.
“I was told a bunch of times that I wasn’t big enough and I wasn’t good enough,” Bailey said. “It was kind of like a challenge for me – wanting to be better and wanting to succeed. I just love the game; it has always come so natural to me. When I get out in the field, everything changes. I just have that hunger and passion. I would set a goal, meet that goal and want to meet another goal.”
Soccer was a family tradition for Bailey and, when all was said and done, she was a highly decorated recruit and had been named to the ESPN/Rise High School All-America team as an honorable mention selection.
“I was three when I signed up for my first team,” she said. “I got involved because my older brother and my older sister played, and I wanted to do everything they did. Soccer was the sport in my family.”
Bailey’s rock-solid work-ethic, coupled with her short stature has made her a fan-favorite, especially among the younger fans at Regal Soccer Stadium. From that, she derives her motivation.
“That’s one of my favorite parts about the game, being connected to younger kids,” Bailey said. “When I was growing up, I loved having role models and people who led the way. I connect well with these kids and I want them to see that size doesn’t matter in the game of soccer. That’s what keeps me going.”