It was with about five games to go in the regular season last fall, that Western Washington University women's soccer coach Travis Connell noticed a change in forward Kristin Maris.
"There was a different intensity about her," Connell said in a phone interview. "She led us through the conference tournament and ended up being the MVP, and during the national tournament, she had a game-winning goal."
Maris said she didn't actually notice a change in herself during the season's final month, when she was credited with 20 shots, four goals and two assists in 10 games.
"I wasn't consciously aware that anything changed," Maris said in a phone interview. "I think I realized our seniors were graduating soon, and that my class would be the oldest class. Being a forward and one of only a few senior forwards, I knew I had to step up and become a little bit more of a leader."
Maris will lead her team into the NCAA Division II postseason at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16, when the Vikings host Seattle Pacific at Whatcom Community College in the second round of the West Regional.
While 10th-ranked WWU (17-1-1) received a first-round bye, the Falcons (15-5-1) had to beat Sonoma State 1-0 on Thursday, Nov. 14, in the first round of the tournament.
Saturday will mark the fourth meeting between WWU and SPU this season - the Vikings won both regular-season meetings 2-1, but the Falcons handed them their first loss on penalty kicks in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship game one week ago in Tukwila.
"SPU is definitely a team we know well, and they know us well," Maris said. "The key to the game is who's going to make that extra effort to make the difference in the game."
Finding a way to give that extra effort hasn't been a problem for Maris.
Connell said he could tell she was going to have a special senior campaign, not only by the way she finished off last year, but by the way that strong finish spilled over into her offseason work.
"When she stepped up her game late, it really carried over into her winter weights and her practices in the spring," Connell said. "She really put everything she had into having a successful year."
And now she - and the Vikings - are reaping the benefits.
Maris enters Saturday's game with 10 goals and six assists. She is second on the team to Catherine Miles (14 goals) and Ashton Griffen (11 assists) in those categories, but leads WWU with 63 shots on goal.
For her efforts, Maris was selected the GNAC Player of the Year earlier this month, not so much for how many goals she had, but for her impact every time she steps on the field.
"Teams have to game plan against her," said Connell, who called her the best post-up player in the region and a threat with her head on every reset kick. "But she still probably touches the ball more than anyone else on the field. That's really rare. There are 22 players on the field, but the one who is double teamed and who everybody game plans for is the one who touches it the most. When one player attracts so much attention trying to stop her, which they often aren't able to do, it really makes a big difference in the team's success."
And those few opportunities when she doesn't get double covered - either by design or mistake?
"I definitely try to take notice when it's one-v-one coverage and try to take advantage," Maris said. "I try to make them pay as much as I can when they leave me with just one defender."
Maris has enough size and strength in her 5-foot-9 frame to make opponents pay even when she is double covered, as Connell said she is excellent at feeding the ball to teammates that flash open while teams focus on her.
"I just try to focus on being the best player for my teammates around me," Maris said. "I just want to score goals when I can and help others score when it's their opportunity."
With an attitude like that, it's not surprising that Maris, a Behavior Neuroscience major from Issaquah who plans to go to pharmacy school after graduation, has developed as one of the team leaders this season.
Though Connell described her as more of a leader by example, he said he's seen her develop as a vocal leader, as well.
"You can see in practice and when you watch a game, it's by how hard she works and what she sacrifices on the field," Connell said. "She wants this team to win - maybe more than any other player on this team, and that's saying a lot because we have a number of hungry players. She does a lot of things for this team that don't make the newspaper, but they make a big difference in determining if we win."
Maris hopes she can do enough of those things on Saturday to help the Vikings get through to the next week's West Regional championships for a second straight year.
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
NCAA DIVISION II WOMEN'S SOCCER WEST REGIONAL SECOND ROUND
Seattle Pacific at Western Washington University
Time: 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16
Site: Whatcom Community College
WWU HISTORY IN NCAA DIVISION II POSTSEASON
Date Round Opponent Site Result
Nov. 2, 2006 NCAA D-II Far West Regional semifinal UC San Diego La Jolla, Calif. L 4-0
Nov. 26, 2008 NCAA D-II Far West Regional second round CS Dominguez Hills Bellingham W 1-0
Nov. 20, 2008 NCAA D-II Far West Regional championship Seattle Pacific Bellingham L 1-0, OT
Nov. 9, 2012 NCAA D-II West Regional first round Cal Poly Pomona Rohnert Park, Calif. W 2-1, OT
Nov. 11, 2012 NCAA D-II West Regional semifinal Sonoma State Rohnert Park, Calif. W 2-1, OT
Nov. 16, 2012 NCAA D-II West Regional championship UC San Diego Denver L 2-1